Just a few days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and as California’s public spaces began to shut down one by one, Sean Griffin, a founder of the avant-garde opera company Opera Povera, posted a random thought to Facebook: “I’m sure there are a few cool Pauline Oliveros pieces we could all perform together in quarantine.”
The response from fellow artists and performers, says Griffin, was immediate: “A bunch of people said, ‘We’ll do it!’”
So on Tuesday evening, for six hours, more than 250 artists from around the world will gather for an epic online performance of the late composer’s “The Lunar Opera: Deep Listening for _Tunes,” an open-form opera in which the enlisted performers create their own characters, movements and sound based on sonic cues known only to themselves.
“It’s not really a spectator opera, but a participant opera,” says Griffin. “It’s participating with everybody else’s creative interpretation.”
The original opera featured a libretto by Ione, a writer and sound artist (who also happened to be Oliveros’ wife). And the score was made not with notes, but with words: a set of instructions that Oliveros wrote two decades ago. They amount to five sentences:
Each performer creates their own character with costume and props.
A performance area is designated.
Each performer decides on what sound to listen for and when the sound is perceived it is the cue to perform. The same sound or another sound can be used to stop performing and freeze until the cue comes again.
Each performer is responsible for their own character, costume, props and what or how to perform in response to the chosen cue.
“It’s people inhabiting a city full of characters who move in and out of making actions and noises and listening in some kind of reverie,” says Griffin. “The city is revealed by the light of the moon.”
In this case, that city will exist virtually, online.
It’s all in keeping with Oliveros’ experimental nature. A composer and musician — who could play accordion, violin and tuba — she was known for producing sound with magnetic tape and prototype synthesizers back in the 1960s.
Griffin says that even her chosen language works well with the language of the internet. Oliveros, he notes, liked to refer to her word scores as “an algorithm.”
“Full Pink Moon: Opera Povera in Quarantine,” as the production is titled, is co-sponsored by CalArts and the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.
It’s also serving as a fundraiser for Equal Sound’s Corona Relief Fund, created by the musical nonprofit to dispense small grants of $500 to U.S. musicians whose gigs were canceled by the pandemic.
“We are working really hard to fund every person who applies,” says Madeline Falcone, who does A&R for Equal Sound, and is also helping with the opera’s production. “But that will take a little while.”
While donations are encouraged, they will not be required to view the opera. Viewers can also choose to donate to Opera Povera to help cover production costs.
The performance — which will be held on the night of the full moon known as the “pink moon” — will kick off with a pre-event conversation co-hosted by Griffin, performance artist Ron Athey, curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and composer George Lewis.
Griffin, who collaborated with Oliveros while she was alive, and directed the performance “Gifts of the Spirit” with Athey at the Cathedral of St. Vibiana in 2018, says it’s a production that has come together in record time.
“An opera, for me, takes me three years — but we started this one two weeks ago,” he says. “This is an earthquake.”
Streaming details will be made available at seangriffin.org/full-pink-moon-livestream in advance of the show.
When: Tuesday, April 7, 6 p.m. to midnight; the pre-event conversation begins at 5 p.m.
Where: Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitch and the opera’s website