Bringing a third dimension to the lives of military wives
Deborah Brevoort never imagined that she would write an opera like “The Knock.”
The hourlong production, which premieres June 23 as part of the Cincinnati Opera’s summer festival, revolves around a single harrowing military ritual – the official notification of the death of a service member.
It all began in 2010, when Brevoort was commissioned by the Virginia Stage Company to research and write a play about military spouses. The resulting play, called “The Comfort Team,” premiered in 2012.
“I’m thankful I was asked to do it,” she said. “But the military was a world that I knew nothing about. Typically, theater people and military people don‘t mix a lot. So when I spent the better part of three years embedded with military families, it was sort of like traveling to another world.”
Very quickly, though, she found there were points of connection between her life and those of the people she was getting to know.
“My career has made me sort of an itinerant theater worker,” she said. “And all of the people I met [in the military] were constantly on the move, too. There is a sense of sacrifice that drives their work. The same in theater, though in very different ways. And then there’s the fact that neither of us make a lot of money. I actually think military and theater folks have a lot in common.
“I have to say that of all the operas I’ve written – I’ve written 10 – this is my personal favorite,” Brevoort said. “Maybe it’s because of the personal relationships I formed with the military wives. I just think that their stories are so amazing. And if I don’t tell them, who else will?”
After spending so much time with military families and having them share the most intimate details of their lives, Brevoort was loath to abandon them. She felt there must be some other way to share their stories.
That’s when the Glimmerglass Festival, in Cooperstown, N.Y., entered the picture. Like so many other opera companies around the nation – Cincinnati Opera included – they were searching for ways to share the stories of people whose lives were seldom, if ever, seen on the opera stage.
To Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass’ former artistic and general director, Brevoort’s research was a goldmine of dramatic material. Before long, she recruited composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and brought the Cincinnati Opera on-board to co-commission “The Knock.”
“This was a perfect project for us,” said Cincinnati Opera artistic director Evans Mirageas. “This is exactly the type of work that our Mellon funding was intended for.”
The opera had a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation, which was intended to underwrite the development and production of operas that engaged audiences whose stories had not been told before on the American opera stage.
“First, there was ‘Blind Injustice,’ which dealt with the wrongfully convicted,” said Mirageas. “Then, last summer, we did ‘Fierce,’ which was about the societal pressures facing teenage girls. And now there is this opera, which will allow us to engage with veterans and active military families in a way we never have before.”
So far, so good. Glimmerglass was scheduled to premiere the work during its 2020 summer season. But – and you can probably hear this coming – COVID-19 effectively shut down the performing arts. Including what was to be the world premiere of “The Knock.”
“Just when we were getting ready to put this on the stage, we had to stop,” said composer Vrebalov. “And then someone made the decision that the opera will be done as a film and not as a stage production. I wasn’t sure about that. It’s a completely different art form. And, you have to remember, we had already changed from it being a two-act opera into a much shorter one-act. And with the pandemic going on, it just felt like there was too much change happening too quickly.”
Brevoort remembers the same set of emotions.
“I had such a clear idea of what I wanted the opera to be,” she said. “But now, we were having to change everything. I had no idea how you could possibly do this as a movie. I was going to have to create a whole new libretto. I think I was nervous because it was all happening so fast, so quickly. It felt like there wasn’t time to think.”
The film premiered on Veterans Day in 2021.
Unlike so many operas on film, this isn’t just an onstage production with a couple of cameras pointed at it. It was re-conceived as a film and staged as a film. As a result, it has all the impact of a film. A first-class one.
“I can only think of a couple of other occasions where an opera was actually created for film,” said Mirageas. “The most famous, of course, is ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors.’ And we are still watching that nearly 75 years after it was first broadcast. In this case, it probably helped that the videographer, Ryan McKinny, also happens to be a world-famous baritone.”
But the staged production, the one that will be performed in Music Hall’s Wilks Studio, is sure to be markedly different from what we see in the film. For starters, Brevoort and Vrebalov were able to restore several minutes’ worth of material that had to be trimmed for the film. Then there is the fact that this will be a live performance as opposed to a pre-recorded one.
“The film is beautifully shot,” Mirageas said. “But film is two-dimensional. And that has limitations. There is nothing that has the emotional impact of sharing a three-dimensional space with singers and instrumentalists. As much as I love film, and as realistic it can be, there is nothing that is as powerful as having the story unfold directly in front of you.”
For her part, Vrebalov believes that the connections we make when we view art – any kind of art – have the potential to extend far beyond the 60 minutes we share in a theater.
“I believe that a story like this one can make the world a better place,” she said. “Not directly in terms of politics or anything like that. But the one moment of connection a story like this can give us is sometimes more important than everything else. It may not change the world. But it can offer us a refuge where the finest parts of us as humans can breathe freely, even if only for one hour.”
CINCINNATI OPERA SUMMER SEASON
All performances at Music Hall
“Lucia di Lammermoor” by Gaetano Donizetti, June 22 & 24, 7:30 p.m.
“The Knock” by Aleksandra Vrebalov and Deborah Brevoort, June 23 & 27, July 5 & 7, 7:30 p.m. and July 2, 3 p.m.
“The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini, July 6 & 8, 7:30 p.m.
Studio Sessions. July 12 & 19, 8 p.m.
“Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini, July 22, 27 & 29, 7:30 p.m.