Aria Online: Michael Roth’s The Web Opera
The composer works from a libretto by Kate Gale.
By Steven A. Kennedy - (with Kristen Romanelli, editor)
Michael Roth has worked with the likes of Randy Newman as an orchestrator/arranger, while composing his own music for adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Christopher Plummer (2010), Twelfth Night (2012) and more recently Henry IV in Los Angeles with Tom Hanks (2018). Additionally, he has collaborated with many singers, and written a variety of chamber and theater music. His current project, however, is something a little different: The Web Opera, with a libretto by Kate Gale. Gale is known for her novel Lake of Fire, and also provided the libretto for Don Davis’ opera Rio de Sangre. Roth’s scoring for the piece is a blend of popular styles, with notable musical theater elements in the mix as well.
The concept work is being presented on the web serially, with the first part appearing back in January. Three 10-minute episodes were completed and are available at www.thewebopera.com. The video (and story) side of the work focuses on how people interact with the internet as a means of information, education, and unfortunately also “spying,” either through web searches or webcam broadcasts. The story’s underlying theme of cyberbullying is connected to real events concerning a music student who took his own life due to online abuse. “As we circled around what happened to Tyler Clementi [as a theme], I kept thinking about it—the thing that intrigued me was that if we filmed it from the point of view of a computer or an iPhone, then you’re doing what the characters are doing,” Roth explains. “You’re violating the privacy of the characters while they’re violating privacy.”
Part one of the opera features a man reading through instructions to set-up his new webcam, looking at viewers as if they are the computer screen. He then begins responding to emails, and starts searching for more information about one of the senders—his new college roommate. Chat interaction also occurs. In terms of music, episode one is full of repeated motives that lend a minimalist vibe, but the vocal writing is more pop-based. “I’m into counterpoint, and I knew that I was going to be setting a webcam manual text to music, so I knew that it had to have a mechanical rhythm,” says Roth. “It’s not the most dramatic text, but it’s essential because you discover that it’s right in the manual that the webcam will have an open-ended connection. If he wanted to restrict who could see this, it’s a little more work, ‘So I’ll just click okay.’ And there you go. Anybody can see this.” He goes on to note, “The change in the tempo is very easy to do with Finale (notation software), and I’d never really exploited that to the extent I did with this. I found myself developing modes of counterpoint for myself. If you look at the score, it’s rhythmically shifting all over the place to give you a constant state of a beat, but you’re not necessarily going to only hit the downbeat, which is a minimalist impulse as well.”
In the second episode, we are finally introduced to the “sender” (and violin player) of the email. The section opens with him practicing, then details his lonely interactions in forums, where he hopes to find some connection. “I knew once we got to episode two that we had to go to a more chorale-phrased movement. Clearly, [Violinist98] is a person who is alone, like a lot of people that age, and is establishing intimacy online with people,” Roth offers. “In reality, the person that Tyler had the date with was something of a local hustler, but in our story, you don’t know who he is. He seems to be a very nice guy in episode two, but in episode three, others describe him as ‘creepy.’ Which is true? I don’t know. Anyway, I knew that we had to build to a classically phrased emotional journey for this young man. We had be there with his thoughts, so it’s the closest we get to an operatic aria.”
Episode three brings in a female character working on her homework, and the music moves into some rock tropes when the male character from episode one shows up to interact with her. Other people also join in and end up looking at the webcam that was set up to [inadvertantly] spy on his roommate. “Episode three was all about the vocal counterpoint. I knew that I wanted to have a group sound, but it’s still pretty contrapuntal. It’s a lot of rock ’n’ roll in seven that keep turning in and around itself.” The opera’s libretto is designed to feel like a stream of consciousness style, an approach that requires Roth to spin out his musical ideas like recitative, rather than in more structured song forms. In some respects, the resulting marriage of image and music is like a television episode that features sung dialogue. The music has a lot of forward energy that keeps things moving, bubbling like a steady stream underneath the vocals. Given this structure, melodic hooks don’t really get to rise above the fray.
The Web Opera is most interesting in that it’s an online work that is essentially about online environments and behavior. The series has also begun to appear at festivals (nine so far); earlier this year, it won the Award of Merit at the LA-based One-Reeler Festival, both the Lift-Off Global Network/New York and the Lift-Off Sessions/UK featured it in special online presentations, and it will be screened in early 2020 as an official selection of the LA Experimental Dance, Music Film Festival. The final two episodes have yet to appear, but they will take audiences through the consequences of everything that has been established thus far. Roth says that the text is mostly worked out, and that he’s envisioning a “virtually a capella” chapter in episode four. For the time being, as we ponder these initial episodes, it becomes clear that the words of the libretto are attempting to point out how we move from something very simple, like instructions, to much more complicated interactions, whether in the form of emails, chats, online forums, or even educational platforms. — FSMO