Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Opera, Transformed

Opera, Transformed

Tim Nelson

When Timothy Nelson (BM ’04, Composition) was named artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s IN Series opera theatre in 2018, he was already celebrated for his innovative productions throughout Europe and the United States. Critics had dubbed him “the future of opera.” And he envisioned IN Series as a force to radically transform perceptions of opera, including who makes it and for whom it is made, and how it might more truly serve the communities in which it is performed.

During his first two years withIN Series, Nelson’s Madama Butterfly (which he titled, simply, Butterfly) was a study of racism, he blended the blues and The Tempest to shed new light on slavery, and he explored the refugee experience and the sacred call to hospitality in a production of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ.

Nelson sees everything as an opportunity for bold creativity, and COVID was no exception. On May 1, 2020,IN Series responded to the pandemic by announcing its first entirely virtual season, and admission would be entirely free. “It felt like God was throwing this chance in our lap,” Nelson says. “We are so engrained in a certain way of making art that the way we make the art informs the art instead of the other way around. This was a chance to break the mold, and a chance to reach people who might never have come to our theater in Northwest D.C.”

Nelson didn’t want to simply post performances on YouTube, so he worked with a web designer to create a virtual theater, including a “bar” where patrons gather before the film and reconvene afterward to discuss the performance. Working virtually, he can afford to hire talent from around the world, and he says there is a wonderful freedom working in unfamiliar mediums, “because we get to experiment and it’s okay to fail. Normally we don’t even try to do things we can’t do perfectly.” 

It has been an ambitious season and the IN Series site is packed with content. But the film Nelson made of Gluck’s Orpheus, the first production in a trilogy about grief, is “the best thing I have ever done,” he says. “The industry is saying we should create happy pieces, but I think we also need to create artistic spaces where people can deal with the predominant emotions of the year.”

He does miss the rhythm of live theatre, the buildup that climaxes in performance, audience response, reviews. Producing virtual theatre, like so many things in the time of COVID, is largely solitary. But Nelson sees even this as opportunity. 

“There’s very little feedback, so you have to just trust your own artistic instincts, which is what you should be doing anyway,” he says. “I guess my biggest fear is that when this is all over we won’t have learned anything and will just go back to doing things the way we did them before.” 

Joan Katherine Cramer