‘Magic Flute’ coming to your screen this fall

Ridgecrest Opera Workshop transforms its latest performance into online film debut

‘Magic Flute’ coming to your screen this fallBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

When local performers auditioned for Ridgecrest Opera Workshop’s “The Magic Flute” in January – they had no idea they were ultimately signing up for a remotely-coordinated, multimedia virtual performance of the Mozart classic. But that’s what they set out to create. While many operations went on a hiatus after shelter-at-home measures were put in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic, others had to figure out how to adapt. And ROW was one of those operations.

“In the third week of rehearsals, studies started showing how rapidly the virus was evolving, so we released a statement on March 16 to let the cast know that we did not want to quit or shut down the project amid all the uncertainty,” said Britney Brown, the opera’s youth director.

“We believed it would be beneficial to provide some comfort and stability through music. We started limiting the amount of people that would be in the building at one time and let the cast know that it was optional to show up. But at the end of that week, stay-at-home orders were put in place so we immediately began preparations for virtual rehearsals.”

Brown’s mother Yihfen Chen, who plays Pamina and is also one of the show’s producers, is a professor at Cerro Coso Community College and already had some familiarity with using Zoom videoconferencing software as teachers were required to move their instruction to a remote platform. “We followed suit and turned our in-person group practices into individual lessons,” said Brown.

Cast members began 20-minute Zoom sessions with David Hodgson, the show’s vocal director, in order to prep for their roles.

“The transition was slow at first with technical difficulties and Zoom lags,” said Brown. “Since Zoom only allows one speaker at a time, it became apparent that plucking notes on the piano at the same time as a singer would be impossible. David improvised and turned his lessons into a call-and-response format, playing a musical phrase and having a singer practice acapella.

“Singing Mozart without the assistance of the piano is beyond difficult, even for seasoned professionals. But this restriction strengthened rhythmic understanding and perfected tonal memory.”

Music Director Chloe Crouse began recording rehearsal piano tracks for the performers so they would have a way to practice on their own – something Brown said was a “crucial centerpiece” for the show’s success.

“Now, singers without a musical background or access to a piano could learn their parts at home while following guidelines for physical distancing,” she said.

Crouse’s 10-piece masked orchestra met in spaces that would accommodate all of the musicians keeping a safe distance. A tech crew captured video and audio of rehearsals and shared the material with the rest of the cast – giving actors something to practice with to perfect cues and timing.

Because wind instruments can’t be played without masks, the orchestral composition was modified to be primarily string instruments, with Crouse compensating for other instruments with keyboard.

With the exception of a flute, or course. “Because what would ‘The Magic Flute’ be without a flute player?” said Brown.

As for the performance itself, Brown said she anticipates a film version of the opera to be uploaded to YouTube or some other video service in late September. There will be two versions of the opera – featuring youth and adult casts.

“With the help of our filming crew, animation team and video editors in training...we are hoping to create the illusion of a fantastical, magical realm through the help of artist Sara Hise and a green screen,” said Brown. “And given the current restrictions on gatherings, most scenes will have to be edited to look as if our performers are actually in the same physical space.”

One of ROW’s goals with this production was to pair young performers with experts to help hone their craft.

“Young vocalists and musicians are connected with local professionals and receive top-notch instructions and guidance in a supportive environment,” said Brown. “And like every great production, “The Magic Flute” requires more than just singers and musicians. Our creative team educates youth in all things backstage: animated backgrounds, building props and recording music and visuals with state-of-the-art equipment.

“Sara Hise guides the scenery department while Duane Brown, Larry Cosner III, John Duval and Stuart Nissim are the technological wizards behind all the equipment needed to create a performance.

“I have never been involved in a production in a way that involved wearing so many hats,” said Crouse. “But my favorite part in all of this is seeing the musical growth in all the students and seeing how much excitement young people are having with classical music.”

“The Magic Flute is adored in part because of it’s accessibility,” said adult cast director Kevin La Brie, who plays the commanding head priest Sarastro.

“You don’t need to be an opera aficionado to appreciate the good vs. evil themes. And Papageno’s pursuit of family life (and aversion to danger) makes him very relatable.”

“So many members of our community have put passion, time and energy into this production,” said Crouse. “Seeing what can be produced out of adapting to all the obstacles this year – I think the joy will be contagious!”

“Personally I think that people will be impressed by all the talented youth in this Classical opera,” said Chen. “In fact, they are essentially running the production with teenagers as young as 14 representing more than half of the orchestra and the entirety of our audio and video editing teams.

“Under the directorship of Britney Brown, age 19, the youth cast has spent the last few months learning a difficult operatic masterpiece while developing innovated ideas to create a memorable experience for themselves and audiences, regardless of the obstacles.”

Deanna Belt, a high school student in her first leading role as Pamina in the youth cast, said she is very grateful to be participating in the virtual production. “And since we have to record everything, it is nice to be able to listen to myself and give myself constructive criticism.”

“With so many other things being canceled, it is nice to have a group that is willing to put in the extra effort to make sure the show will go on,” said Belt’s mother Penny.

In addition to Belt as Pamina, the youth cast includes Danny Jensen (Tamino), Geoffrey Brown (Papageno), Kirsten Jensen (Papagena), Tyler Underwood (Monostatos) and Emily Ommen, Julia Rindt and Lauren Rindt (Ladies).

Rounding out the adult cast is John Jensen (Tamino), Larry Cosner III and Adam Bingham (Papageno), Marla Cosner and Stacy Jensen (Papagena), Stuart Nissim (Monostatos) and Kelli Cutts, Stacy Jensen, Emily Ommen, Heather Patterson and Elizabeth Pomazal (Ladies).

Both casts include Britney Brown (Queen of the Night); La Brie (Sarastro); David Hodgson (Speaker of the Temple); Jordan Covert, Ted Fiske, Tyler Underwood and David Hodgson (Priest Chorus); Justin Bal, Britney Brown, Courtney Helm, Kirsten Jensen and Emily Workman (Spirit Chorus) and Maren, Ruth and Timmy Jensen (Animal Chorus).

Under Crouse’s direction, orchestra members include Clare Hatter, Logan Allen and Rachel Hyunh (violin), Owen Wong (viola), Laura Olinger and Aidan Kyte (cello), David Miranda (bass), Heidi Miller-Costanzo (flute) and Crouse on keyboards and glockenspiel.

The production crew also includes Hodgson as vocal director, Yihfen and Nissim as producers, Duane Brown and Larry Cosner as tech directors and Geoffrey Brown, Danny Jensen, Kirsten Jensen, David Miranda and Aidan Kyte as the teenage audio/video squad.

“Without giving away the plot, the main characters always find a way to resolve various conflicts through the power of music,” said Chen. “The magic that music possesses may be exaggerated in Mozart’s opera.

“But through these trying times, I have found that the production to be a place of positivity and growth. And there are many other lessons of patience, speaking the truth, keeping faith in a serious matter, the value of friendship, allowing roses to bloom where thorns are found and living through love.”

Pictured: The Magic Flute’s teenage audio/video squad implements the modern tools necessary to put on a virtual performanc. — Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2020-08-14