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'Desert In' Is Opera — But Bingeworthy


Live performances are returning, but the sexy new series "Desert In" suggests that digital opera could be here to stay. It just launched on the streaming site WBUR's Andrea Shea has more on the genre- and gender-bending miniseries.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: In a lot of ways, the Boston Lyric Opera's commission "Desert In" is pretty un-operalike (ph), and that's exciting for the company's artistic director, Bradley Vernatter.

BRADLEY VERNATTER: On set, we were saying, this isn't an opera. It's not a TV show. It's an opera. It's a TV show. It's a music video. It's all of the above. And it happens to be driven by an opera company and says, OK, yes, and what else does this art form look like?

SHEA: "Desert In" looks surreal, like an opera David Lynch might have dreamed up. Each short episode unfolds in a mysterious, magical motor lodge. A quirky infomercial captures the hotel's cosmic purpose.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you grieved, bereaved, tired of living alone? Why not check into the Desert In?

SHEA: Vernatter says the pandemic's disruption liberated "Desert In's" creative team from conventions that have dictated what operas can be and how they're made.

VERNATTER: It is sort of the antithesis of how our industry would typically create an opera in every sense of the word. You know, we would usually take two or three or often five or six years to develop a piece with a single composer and a single writer.

SHEA: "Desert In" has eight composers, one for each episode. The series kicks off with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning co-creator Ellen Reid.


ELLEN REID: "Desert In" is about what you will sacrifice to connect with someone you've lost. It's about where you lose yourself in that and how far it takes to get yourself back.

SHEA: Along with director James Darrah and playwright Christopher Oscar Pena, Reid invited world-class artists from different fields and communities to the table for a mind meld.

REID: Some people were TV. Some people were TV and opera. Some people were more in theater. And yet together, all of those varied voices make this beautiful mosaic.

SHEA: Boston-area playwright Kirsten Greenidge was one of eight writers in "Desert In's" virtual writers room.

KIRSTEN GREENIDGE: This is definitely my first opera. I'd never written opera before, so it was a little bit daunting.

SHEA: Also new for Greenidge was scripting a same-sex love scene between two men, an experience she wanted to honor. She says her writers room colleagues gave her confidence and support.

GREENIDGE: We meet Ion and Rufus. And I'm horrible about giving this a voice. I'm, like, very careful. Like, I don't want to give too much away.

SHEA: In Episode 1, Ion and Rufus are at the hotel for what looks like a steamy weekend romp. The actors who played them on location don't sing on screen. Instead, unseen vocalists conjure their feelings and thoughts.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) We're here in this place. Let's not ruin this place.

GREENIDGE: We also wanted to be able to center voices of color, which is not always what one would see in the world of opera.

JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND: My joke always has been that the best thing about going to the opera is that when you wake up, you're at the opera.

SHEA: Justin Vivian Bond plays the "Desert In's" lounge singer.

BOND: And I don't think people are going to sleep during this.


BOND: (As The Lounge Singer, singing) My boy, spirit of the breezy spring.

SHEA: Bond, a transgender cabaret and Broadway artist, thinks this genderfluid made-for-TV opera served up in bite-sized episodes could be an entry point for new audiences.

BOND: I know that a lot of people that are friends and fans of mine that don't get to go to the opera very much are going to be watching it, and I think they're really going to like it. Does that mean it's going to translate so that they'll go to see a show at the Met next year? Probably not.

SHEA: Even so, Bond believes this genre-bending presentation born of pandemic necessity could be a sign of things to come in the contemporary opera world on screen and on stage.

BOND: A harbinger, if you will.

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Shea