Like most arts organizations, Arizona Opera had to close its doors and get creative to reach its audience when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
The pandemic continues so in lieu of a live performance to kick off 2021-22 season, the company will open with a homegrown, original film called “The Copper Queen.” It’s the first time since the opera company was established in 1971 that it hasn’t opened its season with a live performance.
That forced creativity resulted in other firsts at Arizona Opera. Three women of Latin heritage, director Crystal Manich, scene designer Liliana Duque Piñeiro and actress Vanessa Becerra, performed top leadership roles in the production.
The film tells the true story of Julia Lowell, a resident of The Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona in 1910. Lowell lived in captivity at the hotel in room 315 working as a prostitute. She eventually died at there.
A hundred years later a guest, Addison Moore, visits room 315 and finds that Lowell’s ghost still haunts the place. The narrative spans decades and takes viewers on a roller coaster ride of emotions that ultimately ends in redemption.
‘The Copper Queen’ was meant to be performed on stage
The story was originally slated to be performed on stage but that changed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We began very intense conversations between the board and the staff trying to figure out what the changing landscape of the pandemic meant for us,” said Joseph Specter, president and general director of the Arizona Opera. “And we’re able to arrive through robust internal discussions that it was unlikely that we were going to be able to produce theater in a traditional fashion.
“Having that visibility empowered us to be able to develop a series of virtual, as well as live outdoor, socially distanced programs that we were able to carry forward on throughout this last season.”
Arizona Opera called in experts in film production
The Arizona Opera, based in both Phoenix and Tucson worked in partnership with Manley Films, a production company based in Phoenix to produce the film. The film took over a year to complete starting in August 2020. In that year, pre-production planning, rehearsals, audio recording, shooting and post-production work took place. Scenes were filmed in three different locations: the Bisbee Hotel, on stage at the Arizona Opera Center and audio recording at Phoenix Symphony Hall.
According to Specter, this new endeavor gave the company an opportunity to consult with and learn from other experts in the arts and film industry. In making the film, the company considered sound quality for film instead of the stage, intellectual property rights and lighting and set design that would translate on screen.
“There were a lot of topics on which we needed to call in expertise on, which wasn’t necessarily part of our organization,” Specter said. “These were considerations that we never had to consider before. Humility to say, ‘Ok who do we need to speak with to make sure that we really get this right?’”
A groundbreaking all-female leadership team
Despite having to adapt from the stage to the screen, Spector notes that the success of the Copper Queen’s production was in part due to the leadership of the women who worked on the film.
Manich, the director, is Puerto Rican, scenic designer Duque Piñeiro is Colombian and lead actress and singer Becerra is of Peruvian and Mexican American heritage. Becerra plays the lead role of Julia Lowell.
The three women compose the company’s first-ever all-female and all-Latinx leadership team to execute a show.
“It really is an honor to be the leading lady as a Latina and to work with these women,” Becerra said. “It is something I don’t take for granted because, I don’t know if there is another young Hispanic girl who might have an interest in singing or music or playing an instrument or any of these art forms where you just help yourself. So I am very proud and honored to be the face that people hear about this or at least one of the faces, because it’s something that I didn’t see when I grew up.”
The actors also had to adapt to acting for the screen. For lead actress Becerra, the experience presented new challenges.
“I am obsessed with the ephemeral nature of live theater,” Becerra said. “I love that what happened that moment is irreplaceable and can never be achieved exactly the same way ever again. That’s magical. So I would say it was very challenging to make a movie because it has to be so consistent.
“I learned the word ‘continuity’ in the film where, if the director says ‘cut’ and then you do a scene again, you have to make sure that your hair is still on the same side and everything is the same as the first time you did it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to try something new
According to Manich, as a result of pandemic closures and lockdowns, opera companies around the country began to explore streaming and broadcasting performances on screen to reach audiences that couldn’t come to the theatre. But the closure, she believes, was an opportunity for the industry to revitalize its patrons.
“Audiences have been dwindling in opera for at least as long as I’ve been in it,” Manich said. “The general consensus is that we need to get younger people into the Opera House to see shows. And it’s not happening as quickly as we would like. I think that screen is a great way to reach that demographic. Screen projects in particular allow a younger audience and I would hope a more diverse audience as well to be reached. Maybe then we’ll see those people in the theater once everything opens back up.”
Turning the Copper Queen into a film also turned out to be an opportunity for everyone involved in the opera to learn new skills and gain valuable experience in the creative process in something they had never done before.
“Because the project kept getting pushed back, I was able to do eight months of pre-production of the film,” Manich said. “It really allowed us to do all of the things that a production of a film would need, storyboarding every shot in the film, making schedules, conversations about what equipment to use, like lenses.
The planning was really in depth and it led to a fantastic independent film approach, which was really exciting for the team and for the singers and myself, because it was suddenly an opportunity to try something new that none of us had done.”
Opera in the community
The film wasn’t the only way Arizona Opera reached out to the community during the pandemic. The company continued a series of programs that they already had in place to make their shows, performances, and educational materials more readily available to the public. They even launched new outreach services.
- NextGen: An initiative by the Arizona Opera that includes a variety of programs to help the next generation of opera artists, audiences and philanthropists. Some of the programs include a tour of the Arizona Opera at K-12 schools all over the state, Digital Opera Study, a program that provides learning materials for teachers to help incorporate elements of the opera into the classroom and Music Movement Breaks in partnership with Ballet Arizona, free digitally interactive dance classes for K-6 Students.
- Pen Pal Program: The Arizona Opera is now offering the community a way to connect with the company by finding a pen pal within the organization. People can sign up to keep in touch with an Arizona Opera staff member, artist or friend.
- UnMic’d: A new video series produced by Arizona Opera offers listeners an insight into the world of opera. The show hosts a variety of professionals from the industry. UnMic’d can be watched or listened to on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Amazon Music.
- Production Apprentice Program: An opportunity for students or young professionals to get real life experience in production….