New opera filmed at ECU to premiere Aug. 27

A universal story about finding the courage to overcome one’s inner demons is the central theme of a new opera that will debut as a feature film at East Carolina University.

“The Dreamer” — written, directed and performed entirely by ECU faculty members, staff and students — will premiere at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 27 in the School of Music’s Fletcher Recital Hall. The in-person event is free and open to the public, and face coverings are required. At-home audiences can watch it on YouTube.

The central character — the Dreamer, played by Christian Powell in the film — tries to conquer internal demons that hold her back. “It’s the story of the Dreamer finding courage, and she has people who inhibit her or help her along the way,” said Daniel Shirley, director of opera theater and assistant professor of vocal studies at ECU.

Like the character, audiences may face similar struggles, from failure and self-doubt to criticism and negative thoughts.

“It’s a nightmare,” said composer Mark Taggart, who took inspiration from the dream world of one of his favorite writers. “It’s not about the surface; it’s what lies underneath. The imagery is drawn from that. Dreams are a very effective way of getting beneath the surface.”

The fantasy features creative costumes and masks, artwork and lighting that transcend time periods, Shirley said.

Filmed entirely on campus, viewers may recognize at least one place in particular: the steps at Wright Auditorium. The pandemic necessitated outdoor filming over the spring semester because everyone couldn’t be together indoors. “It forced our hand, but it actually created something that is really beautiful and magical and works perfectly for this piece,” Shirley said.

Because of the pandemic, organizers initially planned for a virtual opera, where cast members would perform from separate locations in real-time on Zoom. But the opera is best seen on film, Shirley said.

“I couldn’t be more pleased that this piece is our first foray into feature film,” he said. “We were able to utilize special effects, we were able to capture the internal life of this character, the Dreamer, through the film medium in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do on stage. In this piece, we go into her head and capture that on film in a way that we never could on stage.”

“Nightmares are funny things because you feel like you’ve lasted in there for years, but the actual nightmare lasts only just a few seconds, so time is distorted, as all this imagery is distorted,” Taggart said. “Film captures that sense a little more effectively, although I’d love to see it staged sometime too.”

One way that Shirley and technical designer Alex Davis captured the impermanence of time was by using time lapse footage of the night sky. Davis, coordinator of audio services at ECU, has filled the role of producer, cinematographer, camera man and audio engineer, helping with direction and post-production, Shirley said.

“This piece is as much Alex Davis’ as anyone’s,” he said. “His genius and creativity and the energy that he’s been willing to give is the reason we’re doing it (as a film).”

The production’s elaborate costumes and masks were created by design consultant and retired School of Theatre and Dance faculty member Jeffery Phipps. “The use of masks in this opera is pretty central to how we’re portraying the dreamlike world, and the masks progress with the characters. Each character has a series of masks, between three and five, that they utilize through the show as we go through the Dreamer’s inner struggle toward her courage,” Shirley said.

The Dreamer is joined by two other named characters — the Tented Man and the Confidante — and supported by a sextet who help narrate the plot and the Dreamer’s thoughts.

ECU senior Evan Martschenko sings bass in the sextet. “It’s really fantastic for me as a composer, musician and a student to do something that my teacher wrote,” said Martschenko, who has performed in ECU’s opera productions since he was a freshman. “Many of us have had Dr. Taggart as a teacher, in theory classes, possibly in composition … but to get new music from someone you know personally, and to have learned from personally, that’s something that I don’t think a lot of music majors around the country get to participate in.”

Composer Mark Taggart

Composer Mark Taggart talks with librettist Ann McCutchan via computer. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

Erica Timmerman, a graduate student at ECU, played the Confidante in her first operatic role. “My character was kind of the calming sense, trying to help the Dreamer find peace, find comfort, find herself. I enjoyed playing my character because I’m very much that person in real life,” she said. “All the filming was so detailed and so precise, they cared so much about each and every piece that it was just so wonderful to be a part of.”

Merging classical music with the film medium has grown over the past two years. Shirley doesn’t foresee the trend going away even when the pandemic ends, which puts ECU students at the forefront of the industry.

Because of the number of talented students at ECU, Shirley assembled two complete casts. A total of 16 students and seven faculty members were involved in the production. One group will be seen in the premiere on Aug. 27; the other is the outreach cast.

The 40-minute opera will be condensed into a ‘greatest hits’ version, which will be taken to high school drama classes throughout the region. Screenings will be held for high school audiences and available for playback in classes. “Neither cast was the primary cast. They are equal. We’re just using them in different contexts,” Shirley said.

With the premiere approaching, Shirley said he hopes audiences will feel inspired to take on some of their personal struggles one step at a time. “Hopefully people can gain some inspiration from it,” he said. “And people around the world will see the important work being done at ECU.”

“Opera has a personal connection, an emotional connection even though it will be fantastical and dreamlike,” Taggart said. “We want you to feel something. I want you to cry after you’ve seen it.”

Music director J. Christopher Buddo, former dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, looks at music with opera director Daniel Shirley. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

Premiere Performance

ECU opera theater will host an in-person screening of “The Dreamer” at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 27 in the School of Music’s Fletcher Recital Hall. This is the first opera at ECU — and possibly at any UNC System school — that has been filmed as a feature production. The opera was composed, directed and performed entirely by faculty members, staff and students.

The viewing is free and open to the public, and face coverings are required. At-home audiences can watch the premiere at https://www.youtube.com/user/ECUSchoolOfMusicLive.

Mark Taggart, composer

Ann McCutchan, librettist

Daniel Shirley, director

Alex Davis, technical design and direction

Christopher Buddo, music director

Jeffery Phipps, costume and mask design

Eric Stellrecht, pianist and musical coordinator

Madeline Beeson, assistant director

Nicholas Mackey, technical assistant