Opera takes cues from reality TV

Not for snacking. As a prop. Over the past — wow, has it really only been 18 hours since the Atlanta Opera’s 24-Hour Opera Project began? — he and his team have managed to pull off much trickier stuff:

They’ve killed Paula Deen. And resurrected her in heaven. All in good fun, of course, and all of it in song. Still ...

Their 10-minute opera, titled “Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens,” is one of five being semi-frantically created by teams working in music rooms all around the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta over a 24-hour period.

As of 5 p.m. yesterday, “Krispy Kremes” hadn’t even existed. Yet here it is late the following morning and the cast is this close to being completely “off book” (able to perform from memory) when they debut it hours from now for a live audience and webcast at the Atlanta Opera Center.

If only it weren’t for that ban on using outside props! ... Who knew the hardest thing about this whole wacky undertaking was going to be ginning up a fake doughnut to be used as a murder weapon?

“Maybe there are some leftover bagels in the break room we can use,” ventures John Elliott Yates, a tall, redheaded bass-baritone from Hattiesburg, who’s one of three singers assigned to the team. “They look kind of doughnutty.”

Nutter, a Doraville resident who’s been the stage director of “Krispy Kremes” for all of four hours, briefly considers the suggestion. A sly smile creeps across his face.

“I call that ‘opera magic,’ where you suspend disbelief,” Nutter announces with a wink. “And this is opera, right?”

A play for diversity

It is now. Long considered the exclusive province of those in high income and age brackets, opera is adapting to the realities of the new millennium. Whereas once you needed a box seat at the Metropolitan Opera House to see “La Traviata,” now anyone who buys a movie ticket can watch it during one of the popular “The Met: Live in HD” broadcasts.

On the other hand, who even needs to go to the opera anymore when you can hear the latest new music with a simple iPod download. Or experience it “live” by playing “Guitar Hero” at home?

Making opera relevant to modern audiences is an obsession these days at the Atlanta Opera, where that can mean staging new works more likely to appeal to younger, more diverse audiences or even bringing opera directly to them in less obvious settings like farmers markets and coffee shops.

That’s why the 33-year-old company commissioned its first-ever work this season — “Rabbit Tales,” based on the Brer Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris. Tickets were free to the world premiere which took place last October at the Wren’s Nest, the author’s longtime Atlanta home.

That’s also why the Opera’s 2011-12 season resumed last night with “The Golden Ticket,” a much-buzzed-about, contemporary lyric composition based on the classic book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Two weeks earlier, many of “The Golden Ticket’s” performers and creators had shown up at REV Coffee in Smyrna to conduct a free “chat” intended to make opera as appealing as a foamy hot latte.

Boosting opera’s relevancy quotient certainly explains the existence of the 24- Hour Opera Project, which took place in late January. The notion of throwing together a bunch of highly creative strangers and challenging them to come up with a new work while racing against the clock first occurred to the Atlanta Opera over a year ago.

There’s a reason why TV shows like “American Idol” are so popular, after all.

“I think ultimately we are tapping into a trend,” said Laura Soldati, communications manager for the Atlanta Opera, which invented the “24-Hour” idea, at least in the opera world. “People are obsessed with reality TV and the improvisational nature of performing.”

The first 24-Hour Opera Project took place in November 2010. It featured only three teams and the performance itself was lightly attended at Georgia State University (an Atlanta Falcons game at the nearby Georgia Dome at the same time probably didn’t help). Still, the experience was so positive in terms of the new music and connections it spawned that the Opera not only did it again this year — it upped the ante.

Now, there’d be five teams making beautiful music together (or not!), plus the live webcast and regular video and photo updates posted on the Opera’s Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the event. There’d be a stronger PR push aimed at letting people know they could watch the live debut of the operas in person or online and vote for the “audience favorite” award immediately afterwards; the performances themselves were given a high profile Saturday night slot and moved to the Atlanta Opera Center (everything else took place at the church, which has numerous music rooms with pianos).

All well and good, if all you care about is what happens onstage. Off-stage, behind the scenes, is a whole other story, one that for the sheer amounts of creativity, drive and — yes, occasional temperamental outbursts or bouts of zaniness — surpasses even the most melodramatic opera. To be an atonal fly on the wall during the 24-Hour Opera Project was to see “art” being made from start to finish, with everything mundane, messy and magical that happened in-between.

Come fly with us.

Antics and intrigue

On a stormy Friday evening in January, most of the 41 participants who’d come from around the country gathered at the church for a “kick off” event that mingled serious music talk with “Let’s Make A Deal”-style antics. A theme was unveiled — “Accidental Affair” — that each opera would have to incorporate. Games of chance joined together composer-lyricist duos; another one assigned them props that they would have to work into their operas somehow.

One team got oven mitts and a teddy bear. Another, sausage links and a fishing net. Yet another, two colorful all-day suckers and a bottle marked “Poison.”

“We’re all pretty intrigued by the lollipops and poison,” admitted Kori Jennings, 32, a mezzo-soprano from Baton Rouge who’s sung with major companies such as the Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Lousiane.

Earlier that day, she’d made the eight-hour drive from Louisiana with another singer. Their conversation had veered between shared nervousness over having to perform entirely new music and jokes about how this felt like being in an episode of “The Bachelor” — right down to the “confession cam” that all participants would have to “talk to” at least once during the 24-hour period.

“We were like, ‘Do we stage a fight or do we cry?’ ” quipped Jennings.

Singers and directors wouldn’t learn their team assignments until the following morning — after the composer/lyricist duos had spent 12 hours creating their pieces from scratch and then entrusted them to strangers.

“At 6 a.m., you have to be done!” Emmalee Iden, the Atlanta Opera’s “24-Hour” maestro, warned those duos just before sending them off to their separate rooms with a promise of endless Red Bull and pizza at midnight. “It will be a mad, opera lock-in!”

Culinary inspiration

About an hour later, Vynnie Meli and Jennifer Jolley are already breaking out of their assigned work space in the church’s Cherub Choir rehearsal room. They’ve only just met — Jolley’s working on a Ph.D. in composing at the University of Cincinnati and Meli’s a Marietta playwright who’s had shows mounted here and off Broadway) — but both feel the need to look over the costumes and additional stash of props the Atlanta Opera has laid out in the event’s break room.

Unlike some other teams, their two randomly assigned props — a rolling pin and big hunk of fake cheese — go together perfectly. Too perfectly?

“That was almost a distraction,” Meli recalled later. “It was, ‘OK, obviously, we’re in a kitchen. That doesn’t give us any jumping off point to something greater.’”

But seeing an angel’s harp among that pile of props does. So does a freewheeling conversation the duo has back in their work room about televised cooking shows, and — who else but the operatic queen of such shows? — Paula Deen.

“It just came out that she has diabetes, if we want to be topical,” Meli muses aloud. “But, oh no, there has to be an affair. An accidental affair.”

“Is there anything else? That angel’s harp?” Jolley suggests. “It could be an other-worldly thing ...”

Over the next several hours, the pair settles on and sharpens a story line about Deen having to defend her life (or more accurately, her overly rich cooking life) in an effort to get into heaven. Some ideas they eventually dismiss as unworkable: “It’s a four-syllable word,” Jolley explained weeks later about the decision to drop any mention of Deen’s diabetes. “The thing that’s most difficult about an opera libretto is you have to be so minimal. Four-syllable words you have to take out.”

Other notions are truly inspired from the get-go. Such as a “Butter Aria,” which simply sounds deliciously fun, yet ends up being absolutely crucial to establishing the plot’s “accidental affair:” When the Deen character (soprano Christine Lyons, a Fayetteville native) “seduces” the two angels (Yates and Georgia State graduate Sondra Collins) who are hell bent on denying her entree into heaven.

“She’d sing, ‘Here taste it, Here t-a-s-t-e it!’ to the angels who’ve never had butter before,” Meli proposes.

“That might be something,” Jolley concurs, not long before she and Meli go to separate corners to begin working on “Krispy Kremes’ ” music and lyrics.

Thrills and trills

By 7:30 a.m., the composer/lyricist duos have been banished from the building, replaced by randomly assigned pairs of stage and musical directors who are now getting their first look at “their” operas. An hour later the singers show up and the whirlwind of rehearsals, staging and (in the case of one team) arguing over their opera’s ending commences.

By contrast, all is peaceful in the Cherub Choir room. Well, as peaceful as things can be when it comes to opera, Paula Deen and theater of the absurd. Around 1 p.m., Nutter and “Krispy Kremes’” musical director, Atlantan Paul Tate, are working with the singers on making that seduction scene bigger and funnier: Can Lyons trill her R’s suggestively every time she sings the word “butter”? Could Yates grip that harp tighter each time he hears it — so tight that it eventually snaps in half?

“I believe your sights are really set on him in the beginning,” Nutter, the artistic director at Capitol City Opera Company gleefully informs Lyons. “So pull out your Paula Deen ‘Carmen’ here.”

Lyons doesn’t have to be asked twice to make like opera’s greatest temptress. Now the only question that remains is: Will that night’s audience be seduced, too?

Standing room

The answer arrives well before “Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens” does onstage in the capacious rehearsal hall at the Atlanta Opera Center. When the doors open at 6:30 p.m., a crowd is already waiting; when Team No. 1 begins performing its opera, entitled “The Layover,” half an hour later, the room literally is standing room only.

“Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens,” appears third on a lineup where one of the other opera’s titles is “The Grass Is Always Deader” and the various subject matter ranges from illicit love affairs to a love triangle in the Land of the Dead (“I think we covered all the deadly sins tonight, including gluttony,” Hampton resident Kathy Pillatzki, whose daughter, Amanda, is among the singers, jokes later).

Judgment in a day

Still, a clear favorite emerges almost from the moment Yates sings “Krispy Kremes’” opening line — “It’s Paula Deen!” — and laughter rolls across the crowd. Ten minutes later, they’re on their feet applauding along to the final strains of the fallen angels’ buttery lament: “We lost our wings to Paula D-e-e-n ...”

When the votes are tallied about half an hour later, it’s a clean sweep. “Krispy Kremes” wins the audience favorite prize and one awarded by a panel of expert judges.

But there’s clearly another big winner here tonight: The Atlanta Opera.

The 24-Hour Opera Project audience isn’t just much larger than anyone had anticipated (about 200 in person and nearly 1100 online views). It’s also filled with unknown faces. And that’s a very good thing.

“This is so amazing,” marvels Dennis Hanthorn, the Zurich General Director of the Atlanta Opera, preparing to plunge into the post-performance crowd and start introducing himself to people. “There are so many different people here, so many different ages. This is not our typical audience.

“But maybe it will be.”

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