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Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s "Operatini" Meets In Zoomland

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Aditya Saxena
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What’s an “Operatini?" Great question. Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is getting creative with their productions during the pandemic. Read this review of their latest from IPR’s Jacqueline Halboom.

Grab a cocktail glass or two, snag a jar of olives, and go virtual. This casual and relaxed adventure involves learning how to concoct three original signature cocktail combinations from several renowned mixologists. You can also catch a wild new show, set during one of life’s newest phenomenon: Zoom meetings!

The an over-the-top three-part "operatini" is the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s latest virtual presentation. In between drink inventions, the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre unveiled their virtual comedic debut commission composed by Nancy Hill Cobb in collaboration with librettist Melinda Boyd. The opera’s principal singer is mezzo-soprano, Suzanne Hendrix-Case.

The three-act opera, revolving around the hazards of Zoom meetings, is called Emma’s Misadventures in Zoomland. The entire escapade, which premiered last week, is available on demand through August at cropera.org.

"There is a great deal of word play and musical jokes, poking fun at operatic conventions and popular culture. I recommend watching more than once!" Boyd said.

Who Says Opera has to be Boring?

While everyone loves a great drink, many may peg operas as dry characters wearing helmets with horns, demonstrating thundering loud singing, and plots laden with angst, gore, and unhappy endings. With this performance, Cobb and Boyd break all the traditional stereotypes and set the action during the present-day demanding, yet in this case hilarious, office Zoom meeting.

Emma’s Misadventures in Zoomland is guaranteed to dissolve any pre-conceived misconceptions about what an opera or even a Zoom meeting is all about.

“Honestly, this has been a difficult and hard year for everyone, so if people can laugh at anything then we have accomplished an important goal. Often the only way to deal with a difficult situation is through humor. Hopefully people can find relatable elements and see themselves in her situation and her somewhat extreme reactions can make them think about the internal monologue they had to repress when something similar happened to them,” said Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Hendrix-Case.

May I Fix You Something Special to Drink?

In addition to Hendrix-Case, headlining this CROT cyber adventure is New York City amateur mixologist and self-employed architectural draftsman Matthew Miller. He shares and coaches everyone on how to construct two of his tasty Operatinis.

“I thrive on the social aspect of taking care of bar guests. The interaction with people is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding for me. It’s almost like having guests in my own home,” he said.

“I’m a very visual person, so cocktails and Martinis with a garnish are also a chance to create something that is visually appealing,” Miller adds. “In my opinion, if a drink is visually appealing, it will be better received...almost like it begs to be enjoyed.”

The second mixologist is Danny Perisco from Zeppelin’s Bar and Grill in Cedar Rapids.

How did Operatini and Zoomland evolve?

CROT Founder and Artistic Director Daniel Kleinknecht started speaking with Cobb pre-COVID-19 about writing an opera.

“We directed our need to produce something more digitally. We came up with the idea of Operatini because both Nancy and I had been at plenty of online meetings (Zoom), where people in the meetings were celebrating the opportunity of working with another human being (digitally) and sharing (digitally) a drink or a beer," he said.

"The "tini" part came out of our knowledge of people's shortish attention spans and the link to a potent drink, the martini. I've always thought about the short, short operas of Darius Milhaud, the Minute Operas, and those have intrigued me. And I'd wanted to have one signature "Operatini" drink for each opera and to show mixologists creating their signature cocktails. Nancy got Zeppelin’s in Cedar Rapids, and my friends in New York came through. My gardening buddy Silvia Rich offered her backyard for a "distanced" bar. Another friend, Matt Miller, an architect by day and a bartender by night designed two Operatinis, the Bizet75 and the Verditini. They're quite tasty," he explained.

Cobb says that she always wanted to play with the misconception that opera has to be serious, set in the past and about history of some kind.

"Lots of opera has serious themes, but I thought it should be funny. I don't know exactly why I thought of Zoom meetings, but they certainly had become normal for everyone around, and there were a lot of stories of funny things happening on a Zoom meeting," she said.

Cobb and Kleinknecht selected mezzo-soprano Hendrix-Case as the sole singer in the opera. The ensemble is made up of Hendrix-Case, pianist Sean Botkin, and trombonist Anthony Williams. Emma often communicates with her off-camera husband portrayed by the trombone.

About the show

ACT I: The Zoom Novice

The main character, Emma, is sitting in her living room for her first ever Zoom meeting. Under the assumption she will not be visible, she has taken full advantage and her appearance is clearly for comfort rather than a work meeting. As the meeting progresses, she discovers that her audio is off, but her video is on. Panic ensues.

Hendrix-Case actually has experienced relatable Zoom moments.

"I really have met people on Zoom in my pajamas and a nice jacket! Also, I have fortunately not been in any meetings where people were doing things incredibly inappropriate, like in the third song in the "Operatini," but things do happen. One time I was teaching on Zoom and my husband walked in and handed me a bucket of tomatoes from the garden before he realized what I was doing," she said.

ACT II. Something’s Wrong with Karen

Emma has grown more comfortable with the Zoom format and is debuting a new blouse over her lounge wear for this meeting. On this day, her frustrations revolve around her boss, Karen, who is also on the call and breaking a variety of Zoom meeting protocol. This challenges Emma to remain diplomatic in both her facial expressions and verbal responses. It is clear that the Zoom meeting dynamic is becoming very tiresome for everyone involved.

ACT III. Who’s in Charge Now?

Karen has had a last-minute emergency, so Emma, in full executive uniform, is running the Zoom meeting. Emma has started day-drinking, compromising her office behavior. Rather than address the business at hand, Emma holds court regarding what she REALLY thinks about their collective boss, Karen.

“What is important about this project is that it illustrates how opera can be used in a modern way to communicate an experience many of us are having. So many people think operas are old and have convoluted story lines with which they cannot relate, but opera can be a living, current thing if new, contemporary works are created and supported," Hendrix-Case said.

It's safe to say that this production is not what we were expecting when we heard "opera" as a part of the title. It's a fun stream to sit back and watch with a drink. If you watch, send us an email and let us know what you thought at artsnews@iowapublicradio.org.