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You Need to Binge-Watch This New Opera

Rowen Sabala performs the role of Vireo.EXPAND
Rowen Sabala performs the role of Vireo.
David Soderlund

Think opera is too old school for your taste? It's time to rethink that assumption, as artists create operatic works that resonate with contemporary themes and present them through new platforms.

Consider the case of Vireo, a new opera created for television and online viewing. It’s named for the heroine, a 14-year-old girl entangled in the historic obsession with female visionaries.

The full title is Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser.

Basically, it’s a composite history of the ways witch-hunters, early psychiatrists, and modern artists have manipulated the words of young women whose ideas and behaviors fall outside the norm.

Composer Lisa Bielawa spent years researching visionary women, going back as far as the European Dark Ages. Now, the opera she helped create explores themes of gender and identity, as well as perception versus reality.

Scene from Verio: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser.EXPAND
Scene from Verio: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser.
David Soderlund

Your first chance to see it is Wednesday, May 31. That’s when Vireo becomes available for free online viewing. It’s a 12-episode series, so you can binge-watch the whole opera — or view the episodes at your own pace.

Keep your eye on the character Raphael if you decide to check it out. Mesa singer Ryan Glover, who graduated from ASU with a music degree, plays the role — and he has performed in the chorus for several Arizona Opera productions.

Glover appears in several of the episodes, which were filmed over the course of a two-year period in locations ranging from New York to Alcatraz Island near San Francisco.

Composer Lisa Bielawa talks with cast members during filming at Alcatraz.EXPAND
Composer Lisa Bielawa talks with cast members during filming at Alcatraz.
David Soderlund

For a time, it looked like the opera wouldn’t come to fruition.

Bielawa first conceived it 20 years ago, and started working with librettist Erik Ehn. But they set it aside, until Bielawa was inspired to revive it during an artist-in-residency at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California.

There’s another Arizona connection here.

John Spiak, a former curator at ASU Art Museum, left Arizona back in 2012 to become director and chief curator of Grand Central Art Center, which is operated by California State University Fullerton.

When Spiak invited Bielawa to do an artist residency at Grand Central, he asked her to create a project inspired by the Santa Ana community. So Bielawa spent time exploring the local community, including a high school in the area with a classical vocal conservatory.

Then, she had a lightbulb moment.

Ryan Glover of Mesa (right) performs the role of Raphael.
Ryan Glover of Mesa (right) performs the role of Raphael.
Joe Farzu

Bielawa decided to revive her unfinished opera, and include young performers. So, she did just that, composing the music herself and having Ehn continue writing lyrics.

Along the way, she involved several other artists, including opera star Deborah Voigt and the Kronos Quartet. Soprano Rowen Sabala, a recent graduate of Orange County School of the Arts, performs the lead role.

The finished product is particularly relevant in today’s political climate, Spiak says.

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“We’re seeing the rise of female voices in the protest movement today, even as respect for women’s voices is declining in other circles,” Spiak says.

Like Spiak, Glover sees the powerful voices of women as one of the opera’s greatest strengths. "The opera gives the power of telling their own stories back to young women,” Glover says.

But there's another reason Glover was so excited to be part of the project.

"I hope Vireo speaks to a whole new generation of people who think they don't like opera," Glover. "They might decide they like it, once they see what opera can be."

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