Posted21 Sep 2022
The Raven, Lenore, and pushing boundaries in opera
An interview with The Raven director Aria Umezawa and the Obvious Agency’s Joseph Ahmed
What were your initial thoughts and ideas as you approached The Raven?
Aria: When I was approached about The Raven, I was told that this project had been born out of conversations with Opera Philadelphia’s Community Advisory Council and this was to support these ongoing conversations. First of all, I was very excited because I’m a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan and our Halloween tradition is to listen to “The Raven” every year, like a spooky reading. But the more I thought about this project, the more I thought that if this project was supposed to be about community engagement and continuing and deepening a connection with Opera Philadelphia and the broader AAPI and artistic community, that it was probably not ideal to invite out-of-town artists to do that. I suggested we try and partner with a local theater company to create something that holds the opera. I found the Obvious Agency website and read it through and really liked it. Then just coincidentally, one of their co-founders was on the Community Advisory Council.
Joe: Daniel Park, who is one of our co-founders, was on the CAC. It’s been a really interesting journey from there because initially what Aria had come to us with was this idea of this immersive framing. We moved forward with reaching out to and hiring a bunch of local folks, and we had a workshop this summer where we started playing with these ideas. We ended up arriving on teasing out some of these characters from The Raven itself more deeply, hence the idea of this character Lenore.
Who is Lenore – both Poe’s Lenore and your interpretation?
Aria: We don’t actually know a lot about Poe’s Lenore. We know the protagonist of The Raven loved Lenore, and Lenore is no longer with us on this Earth. The only actual line of description we get is “the fair and radiant maiden Lenore,” which is about as broad a description for someone as you can give. What’s the film term, the MacGuffin? (Joe nods.) Yeah, so Lenore is this thing that is incredible significant to the plot but we know virtually nothing about, and as we started talking about the significance of this loss, about who Lenore was and how she is the propeller for the whole poem, the opera, we realized we didn’t know anything about this person.
Joe: There was this wonderful day, I think our third day of workshops, when we said, what if everyone is just Lenore? I think where this interest came from is, there is this potential space of that character because she is so undefined. Interestingly, I actually realized recently there are two poems about Lenore by Poe, there’s “The Raven,” and there’s a poem called “Lenore” that is just about a woman named Lenore who died, no further characterization. I think what became so interesting about this in thinking about audience experience, and letting Lenore be what is guiding that, it became a story of the narrator and grief and how the narrator is moving through that and it’s also the story of this person names Lenore, who we only know in this abstracted way. We have all these amazing local artists working on this piece and everyone is Lenore, everyone is a different version of Lenore. Each pathway that the audience might go on will be a different version of this experience, a different artists’ take on who this person might have been, what their relationship with the narrator might have been, that will then inform how they are seeing the opera. And we are seeing these artists’ specific voices and artistic styles come to life in this piece and all coalesce.
Aria: Something that I’m aware of about myself that I think is probably true of everybody is I’m aware that there are very specific versions of myself that people know, like I have a lot of labels, right? I’m a woman, a producer, a director, a disrupter…None of them are untrue, but if you were to inform your entire understanding of me based on one of those descriptions, it becomes untrue, because I am more than a single thing that has been ascribed to me. So poor Lenore! We started feeling bad for Lenore. Lenore in this poem is just “radiant maiden Lenore.” I’m pretty sure sometimes Lenore was a raging demon. I bet you at some point in the relationship Lenore was the exact opposite of whatever a radiant maiden is. Lenore was probably sometimes goofy, sometimes serious, all of these things. So what happens if Lenore has been fragmented into these abstracted versions, these labels of herself, and part of her goal is to put a more nuanced version of herself back together?
How does Noh theater influence the piece?
Aria: I’ll start by saying Noh theater is an extraordinary art form with a ton of technique. Noh theater is like opera in that it’s all about form…I would never be so bold as to pull from an art form that I have virtually no experience with. Toshio Hosokawa himself points to very high-level influences of Noh in the opera. For instance, Noh theater frequently has animal narrators, which is one connection he drew to the narrator in The Raven. We’ve taken a similar approach. We looked at images and watched videos about Noh theater, reacted to it, and incorporated it into our design. For example, Noh theaters have roofs and bridges. We’ve created a “roof” that goes over the audience. We’ve designed a mask for the Raven that is a nod to Noh theater and Victorian plague masks.
Joe: I feel like what is emerging in this production that feels really exciting is that there are so many contemporary AAPI voices working on this production. We’re not trying to be super Japanese because that is not the identities that are held – there are a lot of mixed people, Asian-American, and Asian-Canadian people working on this production. I think that really feels like it’s our way in, it’s this diasporic community reflecting and fragmenting and bringing our takes on this material, both Toshio Hosokawa’s and Poe’s material, and passing that through the kaleidoscope that is all these many identities of the artists on this project.
This production pushes the boundaries of what many people expect of opera. How do you feel about that?
Joe: I have the same reaction sometimes to opera that I do to ballet, these forms that are beautiful and so technical and amazing and also feel really grounded in conventions that feel really strict and hard to break out of and sometimes, to me, also feel very white, and as a person of color, hard to find myself in. I remember Aria, you talking about the genesis of opera being about total performance, that included every element. I feel like I’m gaining a different appreciation for the artwork and process of opera engaging with it this way, and also feel like we are bringing tools to the table. There is, I think, in having put these two vocabularies side-by-side in one production, this cross-pollination that happens very naturally.
Aria: We did have that conversation about when opera started and how it was supposed to be the total work, and was about getting the best visuals, the best dancers, the best music, the best drama on stage all in one go. For all of my “boundary pushing,” in a lot of ways I feel like I’m just returning to form, trying to use as many of the contemporary tools we have at our disposal. It’s opera, but it’s opera in a very contemporary way. I feel like I’m just doing the thing opera said it wanted to be.
I think what is exciting and important about his piece, we are all wondering what is the future of opera, what is the value to contemporary audiences? There is actually a lot that is exciting about opera. If we just gave ourselves a little room to ask, “what is sparking your interest about this?” and then followed those interests that we hear from different communities and age groups, we might find opera has a very important and vibrant part to play. Anyone I speak to is always like, “oh, I’ve never been to an opera, but I’m really interested in going.” I’ve never encountered a person who I told I worked in opera, and they went, “oh boring.” The interest and curiosity in opera exists out there and I wonder what would happen if we just rose to the occasion and met people where they were, and allowed ourselves to be surprised by our own art form as well.
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