In January 2020, shortly before the city’s concert halls and music venues began their long period of hibernation, Portland acquired a new opera company.
On its website, Renegade Opera announces itself as being “committed to creating accessible and immersive opera and promoting institutional reform in the performing arts community.” The company is the artistic child of three local musicians: Madeline Ross, Danielle Jagelski, and Elliot Menard. Renegade’s first production, a multimedia collage of Mozart arias titled Secret Diaries of Pennsylvania Avenue, was released last October.
Ross, who is Executive Director of Renegade and a soprano by training, told ArtsWatch:
I have always been interested in creating things, and reinvigorating something that is old. The mission with Renegade is to create opera that serves the community. How can we think about our world in a different way? And how can we get opera to do that?
That Renegade’s first production revolves around Mozart is fitting, as the company’s origins can be traced to the composer. In 2019 Ross was singing the Queen of the Night in a production of The Magic Flute at Aquilon Music Festival. Jagelski was assistant conducting, and Ross approached her with the idea of collaborating.
“One day in rehearsal she was like, we should start an opera company,” says Jagelski, who is Renegade’s Music Director. “And later on it was like yeah we’re starting an opera company, and then we didn’t talk for a few months, and then lo and behold Maddy called me up a year ago, and she was like, let’s start this thing. I have an idea, it’s called Renegade Opera.”
A collaborative ethos
Ross already had experience with immersive opera. During her time as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ross co-founded Promenade Opera Project with a group of peers at the Longy School of Music. “We were really interested in immersive opera,” says Ross. “We just thought that would be a more exciting way to do a show—and more cost effective, because that means you’re not renting a theatre.” Promenade’s first production was titled Justice and Mercy, an adaptation of Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito, and was staged in a historic mansion owned by a music professor at Longy. Although Ross left Promenade behind when she returned to Portland, she brought with her Promenade’s ethos of opera production, one that is rooted in collaboration.
“I always work better when we [as a group] can get together in a room and bounce ideas back and forth,” says Ross. “So that was a great experience to be creating things with colleagues that were equally creative and equally energetic about the work.”
If Ross and Jagelski work well as collaborators, it might be because they have similar musical backgrounds. Both were introduced to music through singing in church choirs (Jagelski grew up Catholic, Ross Presbytarian). When it came time to study an instrument, both picked the trumpet. “I was a little child, so I always felt like no one was paying attention to me, so I picked the loudest most annoying instrument,” says Jagelski. “And that was the trumpet.”
Jagelski says she didn’t know Ross played the instrument until Renegade’s first fundraising campaign, “30 Seconds of Thanks,” when Ross played the trumpet line in a song that called for the part. “I was like, ‘no way, that was my instrument!’” says Jagelski. Last December, Renegade revived the concept for their “Holiday Song Swap,” in which members of the company sang and recorded songs that donors requested.
Justice and Mercy was intended to be Renegade’s debut production, but the opera has been postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic. Secret Diaries of Pennsylvania Avenue took its place. Jagelski says Secret Diaries was “born out of having all these artists that we wanted to work with but we couldn’t. We’d had our fill of live streams.” Renegade was after something more substantial than a streamed recital. “We were like, what can we do to actually make a narrative?” says Jegelski.
A political drama
As its title suggests, SDPA is a political drama, with a premise lifted from Justice and Mercy–making SDPA an adaptation of an adaptation. SDPA casts the audience as a journalist tasked with investigating alleged corruption inside the administration of President Flavia Tito, a character from Tito. In SDPA, you can move through the website at your own pace, “investigating” various persons of interest.
Rather than attempt to fit a whole evening of Mozart drama into the confines of, say, a Zoom production, Secret Diaries takes arias from several Mozart operas and presents them as private soliloquies, emphasizing and expanding on a character’s interior monologue through a collection of personnel “files” the listener can browse before viewing an aria. The result is an intimate collection of opera standards that sound and feel fresh as sung by this all-women cast.
“Something that was important was that we made all the casting flexible, to allow for more representation,” says Elliot Menard, Renegade’s grant writer and a mezzo-soprano. SDPA was designed, adds Menard, so that “any gender can play any role. You don’t have to be a man baritone to play this role, you could be a man soprano or a lady mezzo. If you’re right for it, yeah take it.”
Ross says another reason SDPA opted for gender-flexible casting was simply pragmatic: the team wasn’t sure who was going to show up to auditions. But more importantly, Renegade wanted to break rules (such as gender or voice type) that are often considered to be unbreakable in the world of opera. “I picked Figaro’s aria from Figaro and that’s a baritone role,” says Ross. “I’ve always loved that aria. I’ve been in that show three times. And everytime that aria comes out, I’m sitting back stage, bopping along to the music. So I took this as an opportunity to say, I think this aria is good for me.”
In SDPA, Mozart’s music is reimagined in more ways than just voice type. Sadie Gregg, as Tito’s campaign manager Sara Wilkes, sings a version of “Voi Che Sapete,” that upon first hearing left me confused. I wasn’t sure exactly what was different. Later, Jagelski confirmed that Wilkes and Sequoia (one of the productions’ two collaborative pianists) had rearranged the aria so the titular line sounds minor, instead of major, as it is in the Marriage of Figaro. “The original aria is just about a little boy being in love,” says Jagelski. “[Wilkes] was like, no I think this aria could have a little more Puccini in there. So they rewrote it.”
“A lot of things like that went into some of the arias,” Jagelski adds, saying the team felt emboldened to take musical liberties because the music was being presented in such an untraditional form. Ross agrees: “One of the things I’m most proud of is that this is a show that is built for this moment, and it is built to be online. This is a different medium that felt really unique.”
Joellen Sweeney, the show’s director, wrote via email about the challenges of working in this new medium. “Nearly every aspect of Secret Diaries, from camera work to website design, was entirely new to our team, so there was lots of learning as we went,” says Sweeney. “Everybody had to be really flexible and creative to make it work. The cast was marvelous at rolling with the constraints, and they devised some truly beautiful scenes.”
As vaccination eligibility becomes more widespread, Renegade has begun to plan for live performances. The company announced Orfeo in Underland for August 2021, an adaptation of the Gluck opera Orfeo ed Euridice. The production will strive—like everything Renegade does—to be innovative. Jegelski is currently arranging Gluck’s orchestral score for piano quintet, while Ross has some ideas on how to make the opera feel more contemporary.
“We decided to shift the ending from what Gluck originally wrote, so that it sort of seems like Orpheus goes through a grief fugue throughout the show. He ends up in the same place,” says Ross. “We’re sort of hoping to do a grief ritual at the end of the show, so when audience members leave, they will hopefully have something to hold on to. I think it’s really really topical for our time. [To] give an opportunity for healing.”
Until August, viewers can continue to experience SDPA or tune into Renegade’s Artists in Conversations series, which will be held in April and May. The theme for the four artists is “Deconstruct,” and the website describes the conversations’ aim to challenge “the traditional hierarchies in casting, costuming, and the music education system that create barriers to entry.”
“It’s so important to us to have Renegade opera be a resource to singers and musicians who don’t fit in the norms or are at a disadvantage when they are viewed by other companies,” says Claire Robertson-Preis, Renegade’s marketing director and a mezzo soprano. The conversation series is one way, Robertson-Preis says, for Renegade to create a space “to reclaim the artform.” The first conversation will be held on April 11th—featuring soprano Bethany Battafarano—and is titled Programming Responsibly: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Choral Arts.
The conversation series is the application of Renegade’s mission through theory, rather than the practice of an opera performance. That argument is, ultimately, that holding a critical lens to opera is essential for the artform’s survival and development. “The things that we think matter, don’t matter,” says Ross. “If we push some of those boundaries and break some of those rules that we think are unbreakable or solid, you can find some new horizons.”
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