Covid Chronicles: Paradox Opera Livestream: Twitch.tv/Divatron9000, July 15, 7 p.m.
Alissa Roca is a very rare thing: a maverick soprano.
And since she is, we’re getting an unconventional new opera company, devoted to emerging artists, new music, and intriguing takes on older works, in its first performances across the Triangle this weekend.
Paradox Opera—a brainchild born out of a generation of artists’ frustrations with the outdated aesthetics of privilege cemented in the art form’s conventional training and practices—bows this weekend in its first production: Covid Chronicles, a decidedly accessible and broad-ranging concert/cabaret taking stock of how much the world and we have changed after two years in a pandemic.
The company’s next work? Autonomy, a cycle of newly commissioned songs on Roe v. Wade, coming this fall.
The path to creating a new opera company in the region—one particularly devoted to changes long needed in the genre—hasn’t been easy. After a 12-year career as a coloratura who’d worked with professional companies including the Dallas and Miami operas, Roca moved to the region in 2020. She wasn’t looking for a career reset. She’d concluded that opera desperately needed a reset as an art form instead.
“Opera is dying because the audience is dying,” Roca says. Despite a long decline in ticket sales at most opera houses, she notes, “It’s very exclusionary. It’s museum culture: on all fronts, the industry is extremely gatekeeping—for the audience as well as the singers.
“The big hitters right now are not interested in pitching things to younger people and making things accessible. I’ve been through the whole of the industry, and it’s very uncommon to find people who encourage you to do something different.”
Legendary stage director Peter Brook reached the same conclusion decades ago. In his 1968 book The Empty Space, Brook wrote that opera “is a nightmare of vast feuds over tiny details … that all turn around the same assertion: Nothing needs to change.”
According to Roca, that dynamic hasn’t changed. “There’s this overwhelming idea that that kind of music has to be done one way, and if it’s not done that way, it’s wrong.”
Constrictive, traditional aesthetics have all but straitjacketed opera students, and women in particular, Roca asserts. She recalls a harrowing collegiate competition performance during her first year in college where the judges tore her work to shreds.
The judges had no criticism of Roca’s singing, she recalls; they were simply distressed that she had made a single hand gesture during her performance.
“I think audiences feel we’re just sort of puzzle parts in someone else’s museum piece,” Roca says. “I’ve been told so many times in my academic career, ‘Just stand there and be the pretty girl in the dress.’ What is that crap?” After that experience, she began pushing back against the conventions in her training. “I was very much the anomaly among the singers. I just told people no. And that was weird.” When her graduate vocal teacher assigned her repertory works, Roca brought in new music by new composers. “He sort of gave up and just said, ‘OK, what are you doing?’”
Roca has forged her own path ever since.
“It’s funny. My whole career basically has just been me walking up to an ensemble or group and saying, ‘I’m doing this, I’m going to produce it, and here it is.’”
To test that proposition even further, Roca started Paradox Opera during the pandemic, assembling a board of directors and reaching out to longtime colleagues to get things underway.
The company and its work represent a series of departures from business as usual in the opera world. The focus and subject matter are clearly present-tense; the production logos, which merge graffiti with edgy graphic novel sensibilities, are clearly pitched to a younger audience.
In another divergence from the industry, the production is more cabaret than recital: a multifaceted compilation of 19 works ranging from Mozart to Sondheim, with new composers given prominence alongside canon stalwarts including Verdi, Rossini, and Saint-Saëns. Among the set, pensive takes on isolation and loss from recent chamber operas like William Finn’s A New Brain and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years contrast with irreverent updates of Gilbert and Sullivan and excerpts from Lend Me a Roll, Vince Gover’s unlikely pandemic farce on the toilet paper crisis of 2020 and 2021.
“It’s not just like, OK, come in here and be depressed for 90 minutes,” Roca grins. “To have all of these different stories—probably everyone in the audience will have something that happened to them that fits in some of those boxes.”
Also, the group won’t present its music in an exclusive downtown opera house to overdressed swells in black tie and evening dresses. After livestreaming Friday night on Twitch.tv, the quartet takes its unconventional show to equally unconventional venues: a three-night tour of churches in Raleigh, Durham, and Hillsborough.
Dress is casual, they say; come as you are.
Offstage, the company has departed from the norm as well. Soloists rarely have the opportunity to choose the work that they perform in public. Here, the music reflects the tastes and aesthetics of the artists on stage: old friends Roca called on for her company’s first show, including Chicago-based mezzo-soprano Marissa Simmons, baritone Christopher Fotis from Brooklyn, and composer and pianist Rachel Dean, who is currently in Broadway’s Moulin Rouge. (Future productions will draw on local artists, Roca notes.)
“I want to give back power to the artists, so they feel like they’re really a part of what is being created,” Roca says. The headstrong singer and producer wants her artists “to have the opportunity to say what they want to say, not what somebody else tells them they want to say.”
“If I can and I have to,” she concludes, “I can pave the way.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.