Intimate opera to take flight in Santa Monica
By Bridgette M. Redman
Austin Spangler is no stranger to opera, having worked on the world’s biggest outdoor opera festival in Austria, the Royal Opera House and the LA Opera. So, he knows what he speaks of when he says that “Birds in the Moon,” the outdoor chamber opera coming to Santa Monica Sept. 1 to 4, is one of the most groundbreaking pieces of theater and storytelling he’s ever known.
“I do not know of any other opera or theater that is as exciting and as accessible, written by some incredibly, incredibly talented people here and now,” Spangler said. “This isn’t an old tale of a bygone era, this is dealing with issues now in a way that is excellently delivered.”
“Birds in the Moon” is a mobile, theatrical chamber orchestra getting its West Coast premiere on Santa Monica’s Lot 27, supported by Santa Monica’s Art of Recovery grants.
What sets it apart from other operas? There are only two actors and a quartet of musicians. The opera, created by Mark Grey and Julia Canosa i Serra and directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, is performed in a shipping container, one designed and built by Chad Owens. There is a mix of sung and spoken word and it is done without a conductor.
Maria Elena Altany said the story and libretto immediately moved her when she was asked to be the Bird Mother.
“I get very intense about characters I sing,” Altany said. “This story really hits me hard as a Latinese woman, as a mother. It’s about migration and family separation and climate change and how the harm we inflict on others comes back to us.”
Altany is the Bird Mother and Spangler is the Ringmaster and together they tell a story about migration and a search for a better world. It was inspired by a 17th century theory by Charles Morton that birds migrated to the moon, spent their winter there and came back to Earth where they would remain for the season. Some would come back, and others would be lost in space.
In this intimate opera, a tired Bird Mother lands in a remote desert location looking for shelter and water for herself and her child. It is there she meets up with an aging circus Ringmaster and his traveling musicians. The Ringmaster sells fake trips to the moon. The Bird Mother wants to teach her child how to get there, but she’s never been herself. Both want to escape the desert and they make a pact that leaves them forever changed.
“Before COVID, Júlia Canosa i Serra and I began to think about developing a song cycle for a mezzo-soprano and a small ensemble that touched on some kind of social and political subject,” Grey said. “The Syrian refugee crisis was in the news, so we were thinking about migration as well as thinking about human trafficking, what happens at our southern border and families trying to send their children to a better place. It is a poignant subject, and we wanted to bring a subtlety to the message.”
Pulitzer said they drew from magical realism and the idea of the moon as a utopia.
“The spiritual component is not unlike Samuel Beckett, and the Bird Mother takes on resonances with Buddha or Jesus — a shamanistic character providing a deeper promise through her own suffering and sacrifice,” Pulitzer said.
For Altany, who has been closely following the crisis at the border, the story responds to compelling ethical questions that society struggles with.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to sing and voice the mother and not make her a Virgin Mary, but a person and a creature of nature who has her own power and her own voice and makes her own decisions,” Altany said. “She makes these brutal choices and feels the results of them. I told the team it meant a lot to me and would want to do it if we did it with the utmost respect for the people who are really living this situation. Every day we were reflecting on her power and her vulnerability and her choices and really making her real and not just mythic.”
Like the Bird Mother, Altany is a new mother, one who has raised her child while isolated at home because of the worldwide pandemic. She understands the intensity, stress and anxiety of a parent trying to do what is best for a child, though she says she can’t imagine what it must be like to face the kind of migrant situations people are put through in the U.S.
“I know as parents we try to stay as strong as possible in the moment of big decisions and high stress and feel our feelings later, but of course the Bird Mother’s feelings are there every moment, even when she’s just fighting,” Altany said. “I love the moments in our show where she gets to make music and find the joy and agency through that.”
Spangler loves the scope and size of the opera. He said it was easy in Austria with hundreds of people on stage to lose connection, but “Birds in the Moon” allows for an intimate connection, one that he said challenges the concept of theater and the fourth wall.
The Ringmaster stops short of being evil, but Spangler says he has elements of the nefarious. The character’s realities are grounded in things that Spangler believes many people will relate to: home, making money, the idea of being famous, the idea of success.
“He chases so many modern illusions, well, not modern, we’ve had them for thousands of years,” Spangler said of the Ringmaster.
“Spoiler alert: Things don’t necessarily go that well for him. He’s a wonderful foil compared to the Bird Mother. She blows me away every time. She’s everything that I’m not. She’s magical, majestic — all the wonderful adjectives you could use across the board and I’m very much the opposite.”
Altany said it’s amazing to work with Spangler.
“I get to sing and he has to do all the hard work where he is climbing everything and jumping,” Altany said. “He holds the whole show together so I can just sing.”
Both performers praise how the opera’s creators gave their characters complex layers and motivations. Spangler said the Ringmaster asks questions that the audience needs to ask about society in general.
“That balance on stage in the storytelling — the male and the female, the Ringmaster and the Bird Mother — is so different,” Spangler said. “It creates energy and excitement. It is beautifully written and the Ringmaster isn’t necessarily the nicest guy.”
It’s a character he finds challenging to play and Spangler admitted that he doesn’t always like him. He’s an isolated character dealing with mental health issues from suicide to alcoholism to depression. Many of the struggles have been part of the actor’s personal journey and he brings to the conversation a reality that infuses the character. He said he works with Grey and Owens on how to personify these experiences.
“I have experience in these realms and I can very much live it in that way,” Spangler said. “Sometimes it is not pleasurable and I don’t like it, but it is important to deal with and for us to talk about and have the conversation. What I like is he is created in a way that families can come and hopefully people can talk about what is going on.”
He said some people are instantly able to relate to Ringmaster whereas others have no idea what is happening with him but are intrigued and want to find out more.
The story takes place on a traveling, magic box that Owens created as a fully transformable, self-contained, state-of-the-art shipping container. It opens to create a stage with an LED screen, lights and a Meyer sound system and the top pops up to offer another playing area.
They rehearsed in San Francisco and performed in Brooklyn. Altany said the stage allowed for incredible, exhilarating moments.
“Looking over the San Francisco Bay and looking over the New York Harbor — there is a moment I stand on the top of the stage and sing to the wind and the water,” Altany said. “Then I’m going to get to do it to the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.”
While COVID-19 sent many works outdoors, “Birds in the Moon” was always intended to play outside.
“Being outside is an intrinsic part of the story,” Spangler said. “The story is set outside. Inside just couldn’t do the story justice.”
Pulitzer explained that the shipping container is able to turn into a kind of traveling circus that reaches many different communities and audiences and provides the fantasy of performing in in the desert.
Owens, who has worked extensively on Broadway as a designer and for such companies as the Washington National Opera, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival among others, has a background in custom wood and metal fabrication, fabric work, painting, drawing, and site-specific installations. He’s designed sets and been an art director for major motion pictures and television. They’re all talents he has brought to bear in creating this stage and designing this set.
One of the initial sponsors was Meyer Sound and DPA Microphones. Meyer usually works with large arenas, creating speakers for rock bands such as Metallica. But they wanted to experiment with something small and got the opportunity with “Birds in the Moon.”
“The shipping container literally contains its own sound system so that it is able to tour and move,” Altany said. “The speakers are crazy small. It has been amazing the feedback from the audience. They can hear the picattos, the small, quiet sounds.”
When they did their first dress rehearsal in Berkeley in the Meyer Sounds parking lot, it was across from a busy supermarket and the I-80 Freeway. Her parents came to see it and her father was complaining that they wouldn’t be able to hear a single thing. Afterward, he admitted they were able to hear everything.
“(Meyer) wanted to test out this smaller touring setup that you can control on a board and two iPads and that is it. It’s really amazing,” Altany said.
Both actors are eager to bring the show to Santa Monica, as both now call Los Angeles home. They praise the way the natural environment interacts with the opera.
They shared a story of how during one performance, a night heron joined them. It sat on stage with the actors and stayed until after the show was over.
“That couldn’t happen indoors,” Spangler said. “We can’t take credit for it, but it is part of the adventure, the experience of storytelling on stage.”
The show, which lasts 70 minutes, combines music, spoken characters, and video projections in an innovative manner that the creators designed to be accessible to modern audiences.
“People come away feeling a sense of enjoyment or love,” Spangler said. “It’s wonderful to see who turns up — children and people who have never seen opera before. It’s not elitist in any way.”
It is a performance they will hope uplifts their audience and instills in them a new commitment to opera as a modern, living art.