Opera is about noises that roar from someone’s throat. Lip syncing is the opposite. While opera lovers have long been known to silently record in the privacy of their home, can there be a real opera performance based on having a say?
Can a lip-sync be an opera star?
Absolutely, according to the composer Angélica Negrón, who created the filmed short opera “The Island We Made” in collaboration with the director Matthew Placek and the drag queen Sasha Velor, a winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and lip-synching.
“The idea of lip-synching – of someone impersonating someone else’s voice – was something that was essential to the story we want to tell,” Negrón said in a recent interview.
Melancholy and meditative, “The Island We Made” not only tells a story, but also implies a mood. The music is a mixture of electronic ambient sound, which is pierced by glittering harp impulses. Sliding between three actors suggesting three generations – a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother – Velor is studded with jewels and wearing a flowing lemon-colored dress while she prepares tea. As a kind of space goddess, she moves her mouth to the ethereal soprano voice of Eliza Bagg, who sings Negrón’s poetic text: “The back seat, my bed, this house, your face; you called me, protected me. “
“A drag queen is partly an idea, partly a person,” said Velor. “And the idea part is an idea of fluidity and understanding and humanity beyond labels, to be very broad. And I felt like that was some kind of spirit of love that this song, this lip-syncing, was going to be about. “
Velor, Negrón and Placek participated in a video call along with Sarah Williams, New Works Director for Opera Philadelphia. She commissioned “The Island We Made” and hosted the 10-minute work on her streaming platform until November. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
SARAH WILLIAMS During the summer we tried to figure things out as a company. Is this how we get dark and do we survive? Or can we stay active? And I designed the series of digital assignments. I identified four composers, including Angélica, and she told me what she had in mind. I said, “If you could make it big, what about?” And she said, “Sasha Velor. Am I crazy? “I said,” Absolutely, but so am I. Let’s go. “
ANGELICA NEGRON A big part of that for me was getting the voice right with the drag queen. I had a very clear picture of Eliza Bagg’s voice along with Sasha’s lips.
SASHA VELOR When you’re pulling, lip syncing is so common, but you don’t necessarily have to think about it and all the force and tension it represents. But when we talked about this project, it was clear that it serves as a metaphor for how we sometimes create space for other people’s voices and experiences – to try to capture someone and reflect on them in our own way.
black The song really came out of my conversations with Matthew and Sasha. Matthew has a knack for getting juicy things out of people and we got personal very quickly. We have found that there is something about mothers, about women who educate and shape us. We’ve also talked a lot about the silence, which can be really deafening, which defines a lot and shapes much of our lives.
MATTHEW PLACEK Angélica had the same idea as me: to understand the limits of relationships. And then we started talking about the figure of Mother and Saschas as a kind of heavenly being. We talked about mothers and our mothers, as anyone can, and I got the feeling, damn it, mothers suck. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. As much as I live for my mother, I blame her for way too much. And it’s unfair.
black One of the things I really love about Matthew’s vision is that there are these symbols, these metaphors, these very concrete things that are progressive, but there is no narrative thread in which to say, “Here it goes so, and this is about that. “There are certainly a number of things that are part of it that are not exactly related to the experiences I shared with him. Seeing what he does to other symbols that are unrelated to my childhood, upbringing or relationships, and drawing new meanings from my lived experience – I think that’s what great art does.
CAKE The peanut butter and graham crackers are about my mom or part of my mom.
VELOR My dad thinks I insisted on peanut butter and crackers and that it was a reference to my childhood. So this is a good example of how these things take on new meanings.
We wanted me to be a little bit otherworldly, a little bit spiritual – like a goddess of weirdness who brings that understanding to someone in different ways throughout her life. There was a moment when we talked about really getting otherworldly, like some crazy alien face; I could kind of see it in the 70’s house. But Matthew encouraged me to take it on a human level too. Because I’m not just an idea; I am a real person too. I have my own relationship with my mother. I channel and create space for all these different relationships and also bring in my own experiences.
black Usually I start from a sound associated with a memory, often associated with a place, often associated with a person. In this case, I had the picture of my mother cleaning the house when I was young. And she was going to blow up those ’80s ballads by Puerto Rican singers, and there was one song that I remember like the world was going to end. And very domestic things happen while my mom is throwing this song out.
I love micro-sampling, take like a second or something even smaller and then process it and manipulate it and recontextualize it and see what happens. So that was the starting point for this song: a micro-sample from one of those songs that was my childhood soundtrack.
I also had Matthew’s aesthetic in mind, and thought a lot about the spaces between notes and the silence – just the physical, very visceral feeling of silence. I wanted the song to feel like a hug. And then there was the harp, which I prefer to write for, to emphasize this lullaby quality.
I didn’t sit down to write a poem and then bring music to it. Sometimes when I was modeling a sound, the word showed up when that makes sense. And at the same time as I heard Eliza’s voice, I imagined Sasha’s lips moving.
WILLIAMS It’s been a little over a week now. And I am very happy to say that it was the biggest opening weekend of all of our work on our digital channel. Larger than “Traviata”.
black For the past three years I’ve been writing songs for drag queens and viewing it as an opera, a bigger project. I still don’t know exactly what it will look like.
I often have the question: why do you call this an opera? And it’s really hard for me to put into words what opera is to me, but my first instinct is to say why it isn’t called opera. There is a great power not to apologize when calling something opera and taking place in the operatic world, which is traditionally and historically built for people who don’t look like me and don’t have stories like my personal story. And I think it’s time It is past.
So your collaboration could have a future?
black This is the dream.
VELOR Oh yes, absolutely.
CAKE I would follow these two off a cliff.