The Decameron Opera Coalition has assembled a fun, little surprisingly diverse contemporary operatic anthology for video this autumn. Opera groups from all over the country are involved including Milwaukee Opera Theatre. The show is inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron--a series of short tales told by a group of people who are sheltered from the Black Death of in a small villa outside Florence in the 14th century. Tales from a Safe Distance is an opera that’s packaged like an anthology mini-series on a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Each of the stories in every (roughly half-hour) episode of Tales from a Safe Distance is inspired by a different story from The Decameron.
Three episodes have been released so far. All of the individual tales fit into the larger framework of a story called “Happy Hour” in which a group of people are telling stories in a videoconference...sheltered as they are from COVID. The series opens as attendees get drinks ready for the videoconference. It’s a casual conversation. There’s something intensely appealing about watching people engage in an operatic adaptation of a casual videoconference between friends that serves as a pleasantly conversational introduction to each of the stories.
The supernatural peers into the opening episode. Duluth, Minnesota-based Lyric Opera of the North begins the series with “Everything Comes to a Head.” A woman is accosted by a disembodied voice that reveals itself to be coming from a piece of luggage. The second tale is brought to the screen by New York’s Bare Opera. “The Late Walk” weaves a confrontation between a pair of friends on a walk through a creepy artistically amplified forest background that looks like it's either on green screen or rear projection. The two friends find themselves in an unresolved disagreement that is interrupted by a pair of ghosts.
What feels like it could end up being an operatic Tales from the Crypt or Twilight Zone-style anthology series becomes something altogether different in the second episode. Episode Two opens with “Dinner 4 3”: a bedroom farce by Fargo-Moorhead Opera in which both a husband and wife secretly arrange a pair of extramarital affairs via smartphone in bed. This is followed by Washington D.C.’s UrbanArias as it presents “The Roost”: a domestic family drama of an entirely different kind.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s contribution shows-up at the top of the third episode of the series. The group’s "Orso Ibernata" takes Tales From a Safe Distance into a natural out-of-doors location for the first extended time in the series. It’s a sudden and fantastically natural turn for a series that had spent almost all of its first couple of episodes in artificial lighting. Videographer Christal Wagner has done an absolutely gorgeous job with this one. Elizabeth Blood plays duality on a journey into a beautiful wooded Wisconsin landscape surrounded in a green that had been captured for video just prior to the leaves turning color in recent weeks. It’s a minimalist emotional journey of hauntingly moody simplicity. There’s a piercingly organic feel to MOT’s short, which is bathed in the natural sunlight and shadow in the forest. The other stories in the series thus far have been heavy on narrative and light on atmosphere. True to some of MOT’s strongest work, "Orso Ibernata" beautifully asserts its emotions vividly in song and drama.
Houston’s Opera in the Heights follows-up "Orso Ibernata" with something similarly visceral. It's the story of a woman going through emotional turmoil alone in some of the most dazzling lighting to be brought to the series thus far. A single woman is adrift in her own emotions. Minnesota-based An Opera Theatre closes-out the third episode of the series in drama. A victim of domestic violence calls a friend to reach out for help in a particularly dark tale from the Age of COVID which tragically echoes a situation that so many abusive relationships must have been caged into as the outbreak began to run its course in lockdown.
Decameron Opera Coalition’s Tales from a Safe Distance debuts its fourth episode debuts this week on October 30th. All previous episodes are still available including Episode Three featuring Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s contribution. For more information, visit Decameron Opera online.