An Opera About Women, a postcard from Lisa Bielawa

Greetings SFGC Community,

The SFGC, directed by Lisa Bielawa at the historic 16th Street Oakland Train Station, in rehearsal for the filming of Episode 11: Circus.
The SFGC, directed by Lisa Bielawa at the historic 16th Street Oakland Train Station, in rehearsal for the filming of Episode 11: Circus.

As you read this, over 100 of our singers will be at the historic 16th Street Oakland Train Station, which we have taken over and transformed in order to shoot an episode of my opera Vireo. We are having an amazing and inspiring week together!

This is not just an opera that has roles for young women. It is an opera about them. When I was in college, majoring in literature, I became interested in studying the behaviors of teenage girls, particularly those who demonstrated some kind of strange visionary experiences, and how they were written about by the groups of men surrounding them throughout Western history – neurologists in Vienna, Surrealist poets in Paris, town councils in Salem, priests in Italy, the list goes on.

HERE a Dr. Charcot (Freud’s teacher) demonstrates the behaviors of an hysterical patient to his students and colleagues in the 19th century. And HERE are the Surrealists, celebrating his work 50 years later, as “The 50th Birthday of Hysteria”

These girls seemed to see the ‘other side,’ and their accounts of what they saw caused chaos and confusion in their communities. This was a kind of power that young women did not otherwise often have in their communities, and it often unleashed dangerous consequences for them and for others. They were put in special hospitals, or sent to prison, or put on trial, or even displayed like circus curiosities. They were asked to name witches in their towns. If you want to learn more about this extensive research behind the libretto, there is an in-depth interview HERE.

I shared these young women’s stories with my cherished colleague, playwright and librettist Erik Ehn, and over many years, we created an opera around ‘her’ and named her Vireo. The opera Vireo is now reaching its culmination – it has evolved into the first-ever opera created for episodic TV and streaming media. And as you may imagine, it features many, many young women. Singers from the SF Girls Chorus premier ensemble participated in Episodes 1, 4, and 5. Premier ensemble member Emma MacKenzie plays one of the principal roles, as Vireo’s twin Caroline, born in Episode 6. And today, 110 members of the SF Girls Chorus School are spending their day – inauguration day, as it turns out – with the Vireo team in Oakland, shooting the climactic penultimate Episode 11: Circus.

One of our many talented design crew members told me that she was so excited to be spending this particular day with so many gifted young women. She said, “these girls will remember this day as one that was all about visionary women, making art together.” It’s true – I am feeling this way too.

SFGC Parents, there is no place I would rather be than among your daughters today, demonstrating and celebrating the fact that we now have more constructive avenues for feeling, reaching and exercising our power than these historical girls did.

Vireo’s story is difficult and even frightening, but in the end, this opera is – for me – a gift to all of the young women whose terrifying experiences paved the way for more and more avenues of expression for the generations that followed them. Vireo is a love letter, a paean, to the indomitable spirit of young women with visionary power. History can deal tragic blows to young women’s spirits. We still see this today. It is our job to inspire them, to be inspired by them, to help them raise their voices, in spite of and in the face of it all. I am deeply grateful to you all – this community that is committed to these very voices – and especially grateful to you families whose daughters join me and the Vireo cast, crew and production team for our day at the Circus.

Sincerely yours, Lisa Bielawa