‘MelanchoLalaland’: Knight Arts Challenge winner pioneers high-tech opera-making

Choreography featuring dancers from the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Demetrius Klein Dance Company. Photo by Joey Bargsten.

“MelanchoLalaland”—an opera conceived by composer and Florida Atlantic University professor Joey Bargsten—opens Sept. 13 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The transmedia work, which won a Knight Arts Challenge South Florida grant, presents a not-so-distant, dystopian future in which a drug giant called Melancuria Inc. peddles happiness. It’s a future where drive-through pleasure pods can simply pop up, providing users a reprieve from existential angst and anxiety.

Combining traditional opera with animation, videography and electronic music, Bargsten is charting a risky new course for opera-making. It was at the 2015 FilmGate Interactive Festival that I first encountered a work-in-progress version of “MelanchoLalaland,” and at the time, it felt oversaturated with ideas and gimmicky. Even though what was presented was only Act I, it lacked the coherent narrative arc that a fleshed-out opera can communicate.

However, Bargsten says he and collaborator Thea Zimmer (who is also his wife) have spent the last seven months perfecting and refining “MelanchoLalaland” for its upcoming, full-length premiere.    

Why did you want to create “MelanchoLalaland”? My partner, Thea Zimmer, and I had been talking about creating an opera together for many years. She really appreciates my electronic music, and I love her fiction writing, so there’s a lot of that going into this show. Also, we wanted to demonstrate that with the use of digital media like video and animation, we could produce a somewhat large-scale show with live performers on a relatively small budget. In addition to being a composer, I’m a professor in multimedia at FAU, so this has also been a research project for me in the sense that we’ve integrated or fused practically every media in “multimedia” into this opera–with dance also as one of the “media.”

Live vocalist Vanessa Rivera and video character Kenny Longtin. Photo by Joey Bargsten.

What was the impetus for this project? We like to think of “MelanchoLalaland” as somewhere between radical video art (for example, like Ryan Trecartin’s) and somewhat absurdist musical theater. My electronic score is not based on a live classical orchestra. In terms of opera, it’s more influenced by late-20th-century literary operas like John Adam’s “Nixon in China.” However, “MelanchoLalaland” certainly has the tragicomic elements of more traditional opera, as well as the great live vocalists. Also, we are proud to say that all the artists involved except one are South Florida-based, most of them from Miami.

From where did the core of “MelanchoLalaland” emerge, and how did it evolve? I’d written a rambling, esoteric libretto years ago, based on the 17th-century treatise on melancholia, “Anatomy of Melancholy,” by the scholar Robert Burton. Thea rewrote the libretto, changing its name to “MelanchoLalaland,” cutting it way down, making it more dramatic–basically rewriting it exactly the way I would’ve wanted. We’ve been married collaborators for 17 years, after all.

We were lucky to receive the Knight Arts Challenge grant to produce it, and subsequently Diliana Alexander of FilmGate Interactive invited us to do a preview of the opera at FilmGate’s 2015 conference. While we did only Act I at FilmGate, it was a great boost in exposure and charged us up to finish the production.

The full opera that premieres Sept. 13 at Miami Beach Cinematheque is approximately one hour and a half [long], so we cut it down quite a bit from what we’d originally envisioned. For example, I recorded Katharine Goeldner (a mezzo-soprano who’s sung with the Met in New York City and [is] a former student of mine) for a 22-minute intermezzo—a film within the opera. In September’s version, this will only last four minutes. This is due mostly to time constraints and also our desire to showcase local artists. This includes two local modern dance troupes on film and, of course, our three live vocalists who’ll perform on stage: Matthew Maness, Michael Angelo Gonzalez and Vanessa Rose Rivera.

Vocalists Matt Maness, Michael Angel Gonzalez and Vanessa Rose Rivera. Photo by Joey Bargsten.

What were the unique challenges putting the opera together? Perhaps the biggest challenge has been producing “MelanchoLalaland” ourselves because we wanted to allocate most of our funds to our top-notch performers, videographers and animators. In addition to writing, scoring and choreographing the opera, Thea and I have done the filming (for video elements), grant writing, casting, administrating/bookkeeping, as well as a lot of the marketing.

That said, we are so fortunate that the Knight Arts Challenge grant provided all the funds we requested, and the Knight Arts Challenge grant certainly opened a lot of doors for us. I’ve also been lucky to get additional marketing help from Roberto Santiago, communications officer at FAU.

Why did you choose the Miami Beach Cinematheque? Finding a venue was also a challenge! But again we were very fortunate. Dana Keith of Miami Beach Cinematheque has allowed us the use of the theater for the opera. The Cinematheque is a cinema with a big screen, but it also has a small stage area where we’ll feature our live vocalists. There are a lot of lighting and staging logistics that are still being worked out in order to convert this area for live performance.

“MelanchoLalaland” premieres Sept. 13 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased on the Miami Beach Cinematheque’s website. (Buy your tickets early, as there are only 75 seats in the house.) For more information, visit the MelanchoLalaland™ website or Facebook page.