A game of reflections

Gaming-themed opera commissioned and staged by Portland State University places women's voices centerstage

Mirror Game, a new opera commissioned by Portland State University’s Opera program, made its world premiere Nov. 29 in PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater. The opera is an intriguing effort to bring women into the limelight in a male-dominated tech world.

The historically misogynistic world of opera often casts women characters as victims of culture or the times, or dying of some disease or addiction—though opera directors have lately tried to put more positive spins on such characters as Bess in Porgy and Bess, Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San, and even “gypsy girl” Carmen, in an attempt to lift them out of the limitations of damsels-in-distress roles. And although I don’t play video games, younger generations tell me there aren’t a helluva lot of strong women characters populating that entertainment genre. So opera in general, and this particular opera’s subject matter, reflect one another.

Mirror Game thankfully does not make heroines of women or total pigs of men – and none of the characters is particularly redeemable. Nor does the opera offer solutions to heal the male-controlled, reputedly sexist Silicon Valley world. But it does give women characters a voice. The opera features six characters (three men and three women), and honestly it’s hard to like any of them much. Selfish self-absorbed entitled Millennials caught up in their phones and selfies, strutting around like they own the world in their high-tops and cropped tops! But it’s easy enough to cheer for the cause: Women deserve a voice – creatively and personally.

The opera was written by librettist Amy Punt, who created The Place Where You Started, which PSU Opera staged four years ago, and award-winning composer Celka Ojakangas, who has not yet reached age 30. The 80-minute opera is lively and engaging, even if you don’t know a thing about gaming – which Mirror Game is about (it has a several truncated love stories, too, and of course, power is a theme). It bursts with video graphics and complex projections and lighting that reflect the gaming world. This is an all-hands-on-deck piece by the PSU Opera crew, which consistently creates shows that far outreach most student operas. Kudos as usual go to veteran stage director Kristine McIntyre for bringing it all together. 

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Mirroring

The plot begins with three young ambitious women: Cybil (soprano Maeve Stier), mezzo Lydia O’Brien as Olivia, and Melody (soprano Madeleine Tran), all of whom are trying to make an impact within their Silicon Valley gaming department. They beat the male creators at their own game by designing a game that will dignify women and girls.

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Their bosses–baritone-tenors Eric Olson as the sweet-ish Tony and up-and-coming star Avesta Mirashrafi as the mean-ish loud-mouthed sexist Rohm (among other things, he forces the women to have a hula hoop contest, which he records on his phone)–are actively or passively preventing these women from being creative and being “taken seriously,” as Cybil complains. The third man is a character called “Voice” (Wyatt Jackson) who has a small part “narrating” some of the happenings, though there are some things that need further explaining, noted below.

As office politics progress, lovers Olivia and Cybil break up while Melody, sung with gusto and charm by the talented Tran (a recent University of Portland graduate), goes about things her own flirtatious way, attracting men to her you-tube channel. Cybil, who claims she was bullied online when she gamed as a 10 year old, decides to go it alone to get noticed. Ultimately, she breaks all the rules, including cheating, trolling herself, dumping her female lover for a roll in the hay with her male boss, etc. She begins to imitate the young men’s behavior. The minute she slips on a black pullover a la Steve Jobs, we know she’s joined–or is at least mirroring–the other side.

The college-aged singers were very good, grounded in their roles and comfortable with characters that speak to and reflect their generation. Cybil has the hardest part as the main young woman who lies and cheats her way to the top and eventually fails. In the end she rips off that black sweater and begs the world to see and hear her for who she is. She has to be sincere and duplicitous, and it’s tough to trust either side of her.

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Maeve Stier as Cybil in “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Game score

The minimalist score reflects gaming culture with sounds resembling 8-bit and chip-tune music, according to music director and PSU professor Chuck Dillard. OAW music editor Matthew Andrews, a few decades younger than me, explains:

These are tech-nostalgic subgenres connected to gaming and electronica. A lot of people my age grew up listening to video-game music, and that sound world always had a certain janky charm, not least because the first generation of game composers operated in a “mother of invention” creative environment. As we’ve all gotten older and started listening back with fondness to the sounds of our youth, the genre has expanded. And it’s pretty easy to actually make this stuff using online emulators and the like, which has led to tons of newer music and absurd arrangements ending up all over youtube.

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

We asked Dillard about the sounds he used:

Celka submitted her score to us with two designations: acoustic piano and electronic piano. While acoustic piano has basically one sound, electronic piano can mean MANY different things. After a few phone conversations with her to specify her desires, my PSU colleague Anwyn Willette provided me with a laptop that she connected to the keyboard to power these different sounds – the standard electronic sound modeled after the Roland synth, the “chip tune” that mimicked old-school video game sounds, and a split track with both acoustic and Roland sounds.

Altogether, I was navigating between four different sounds myself, all while playing the show. Celka was quite agreeable to every tweak I offered since we were the first to get our hands dirty in the music. In the end, I feel like we came up with a successful sound concept for the show.

So that’s what you hear, played on the electronic piano by Dillard, a remarkable pianist. With the onslaught of graphics and the somewhat angsty plot, the music is the opera’s underlying game but not the main game–just as music is relegated to the background in a video game, this works well for the gamey opera. The music is neither melodic nor memorable–except in a couple of parts where a quartet sings beautifully, and finally when Olson does a reflective aria.

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Stick with it

With all its forward-thinking themes and out-of-the box music, there are plot holes that need some explanation: what was that supposedly incriminating paper about that Olivia brought Cybil after the break-up? Why does Cybil play herself as the anxious, unsettled one when poor Lydia is the dumped lovelorn lesbian? Hopefully Punt and Ojakangas will do some revision. After all, plenty of operas have been revised after premieres.

The best thing is that PSU was enlightened enough to commission this opera, and that Opera America gave a grant to composer Ojakangas, a doctoral candidate at University of Southern California, to write it. The opera provides new music and new ideas for new audiences, but with the much talked-about short attention span of Millennials, will 80 minutes be too long? I’ve seen young people stick with video games for way longer than that, so why not take a break from screens and give it a whirl?

Mirror Game continues its six-show run for three more performances at 7:30 pm Dec. 6 and 7 and at 3 pm Dec. 8 at Lincoln Hall Studio Theater at PSU. Check here for tickets.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published photographer and poet, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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