Long Beach Opera’s innovative ‘2020 Songbook’ exhilarates

“Songbook” showcases experimental, multimedia operatic videos by 20 rising artists

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Courtesy Long Beach Opera

Still from “Orbis” by Aida Shirazi, in Long Beach Opera’s 2020 Songbook

Long Beach Opera (LBO) can’t stage live performances due to the ongoing pandemic, but its streaming “2020 Songbook” showcases LBO’s signature brand of exciting and experimental new operatic productions. The songbook is available to stream through Sunday, Nov. 22.

Premiering last Sunday, Nov. 15, the “2020 Songbook” features 20 world-premiere performances by emerging composers commissioned to create short pieces reflective of their 2020 experiences.

Five veteran composers who, according to LBO, have created some of the most interesting and dynamic contemporary operas this century– Anthony Davis, Annie Gosfield, David Lang, George Lewis and Du Yun– selected the 20 younger artists and mentored their multimedia compositions.

The resulting works are uniformly astonishing, capturing what host Anthony Roth Costanzo describes in the introduction as the power of music, especially during this pandemic time.

“It can heal us,” he says. “It can bring us joy.”

Costanzo also notes LBO is adapting its 2021 season to be “pandemic proof.” Next year’s operas, curated by artistic director Yuval Sharon, will be performed outdoors or livestreamed from indoor venues.

Though LBO had to drop or postpone three out of four of its current season’s productions, it paid the performers 100% of their fees for those shows, Costanzo notes. The 20 new pieces in the songbook were commissioned by LBO donors and all composers and artists were paid for their work.

LBO describes the songbook’s works as a “virtual artistic time-capsule that range in subject from the silence brought on by the pandemic; to what breathing means to sick, oppressed and climate-affected citizens in 2020; to missing Indigenous women and girls; to a 2020 BYU decision to rescind a decree allowing same-sex relationships; to dating and meditating during lockdown.”

Interspersed between the pieces are each artist introducing their work and the five trailblazing mentors speaking about the creative nature of opera today.

While all 20 works are beautiful musically, vocally and visually, those elements are more strongly integrated in the first 10 pieces before the intermission.

Among the most memorable are “Ghâl 2,” composed by Iranian-born artist Bahar Royaee– a meditation on silence (“the silence was a bouquet in my throat”) with hauntingly fractured vocals by Felicia Chen and equally evocative shadow-puppetry by Deniz Khateri.

In “Orbis,” another Iranian composer, Aida Shirazi, collaborated with her partner Qmars Kalami to complement words from an Omar Khayyam poem– which includes the line, as translated, “we are a tarnished mirror, and a celestial crystal”– with CGI animation.

Visually, we see Persian letters swirling, recombining and glomming together like floating DNA strands as electronically generated sounds and music eerily intertwine with often-whispered vocals. The effect is both mesmerizing and unnerving.​

“Home Song” by Phillip Golub, a New York-based composer, weaves the sounds of his home with sung text from an April 20 editorial in The Financial Times about the pandemic and unemployment.

Golub’s multi-tiered visual choreography of a Zoom-type call voyeuristically showing him in his kitchen with background television commentary, discordant vocals and piano is gripping.

And Hunter Prueger’s “I Once Felt Safe” makes visceral the sadly oppressive feeling of unsafe through poignant vocal pleas, layered music and text-based visuals– including a typewriter spelling out a university policy against same-sex relationships, devastatingly to Prueger reversing its prior decision.

These are just a few of the 20 vocally, musically and visually provocative and gorgeous works in LBO’s “2020 Songbook.”

Each artist pushes the boundary of what we mean when we say “opera,” toward new, multidimensional sounds and techniques that speak to today and tomorrow– drawing on the rich roots of the past.

Long Beach Opera’s “2020 Songbook” is available for streaming through Sunday, Nov. 22. $75 tickets include a $50 donation to the artists, and $25 tickets are available for those experiencing hardship (on an honor system with no proof required). For tickets and information, visit longbeachopera.org/ungala.