- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
UPDATE (and spoiler alert): Hey, they won!
The National Association of Television Program Executives is holding its annual conference in Las Vegas this week. They’re the people who decide what programs wil run on cable, broadcast and local TV. And today, those executives will get a fiery little taste of the Fort Worth Opera Festival.
[voiceover and music from the Lone Star Opera trailer: “Yeehaw! When Cowtown and culture collide, you can bet there’s drama waiting in the wings!“]
That’s from a five-minute trailer that a Dallas company called Abernethy Media Professionals has made. It’s their pitch for a six-part TV series called Lone Star Opera. Abernethy shot hundreds of hours last season just to create the trailer, a backstage look at the Fort Worth Opera. In a national competition, the company won the opportunity — as one of three finalists — to pitch the TV executives at their conference in Las Vegas.
If Lone Star Opera wins, a distribution agency will pick up the project to sell to the right network. For a relative newcomer like Abernethy, this is one of the few ways to catch the eyes of top industry executives.
Amy Lou Abernethy, her husband Sandy and producer Russ Johnson had never even seen an opera before. Johnson says the idea started in a bar.
Russ Johnson interviewing bass-baritone Seth Carico
JOHNSON: “My wife and I met a group of people at a local winery. And they were very boisterous and fun. Eventually, the question came up, so what do you do? And they were like, ‘We’re opera singers.’ And that’s when I immediately realized the bias I had in my head that all opera singers must be tuxedo-wearing, you know, highbrow types. And here I had this great collection of young, old, fun, very boisterous, passionate people.”
The Abernethy team likes projects that overturn people’s preconceptions. They create what are called in the trade, “docu-soaps” – or in this case, a “docu-soap opera.” It doesn’t simply record the behind-the-scenes rehearsals and evolution of a stage show. As the work progresses, the episodes follow different characters and storylines, they find little cliffhangers and dramas.
JOHNSON: “We know in pitching this, the second we say the word ‘opera,’ people start to tune us out. So we know we have to get their attention with the non-opera bits, that we’re not going to be droning on and on about what an aria is – BUT there are compelling, interesting people who make these productions happen.”
Darren Woods, FWO general director, in Lone Star Opera
So they had to see if there were real stories to follow. Last season, what the team found wasn’t just the usual backstage tension. As a festival, the Fort Worth Opera puts on three shows in only three weeks. There are hundreds of costumes to manage, dozens and dozens of supernumeraries, rented sets to be shipped in, tickets to be sold. The scheduling complexity alone can be overwhelming. So too is the pressure on some of the young singers — even the ones who aren’t in lead roles. They may be on the cusp of starting national careers, getting to break out. And this year, the Fort Worth Opera is gambling on the adaptation of Before Night Falls, a world premiere based on the memoir of the gay Cuban activist, Reinaldo Arenas, which was made into the 2000 film. Javier Bardem won an Oscar nomination portraying Arenas.
But how will it play in Texas?
Plus, for TV purposes, it doesn’t hurt that members of the opera’s Young Artist Program live together in a house. It’s a classic reality-show situation: MTV’s Opera World.
[From the trailer: “I think you have dirty, dirty secrets. C’mon tell me. Why you so dirty?” Laughter.]
Sandy Abernethy says with personal issues, they can let the artists tell the stories. Some are eager.
SANDY: “One of the things we did last year was giving the performers cameras that they could use as diary cams. These guys are not wallflowers. They want a little bit of attention. So they’re very free to just tape each other and just share it with us — and it’s great.”
But the video producers were also struck by the power and artistry of opera. Johnson sees the singers as top-flight professional athletes: They work in an incredibly small, highly competitive field and the physical demands on their voices can be all-consuming. Amy Lou Abernethy says that even if their Lone Star Opera TV show isn’t picked up, they’re committed to continuing with the project in some form. They’ve already launched lonestaropera.com. And they may turn their footage into a TV special.
They’re converts, she says.
[During the following, in the background, we begin to hear soprana Susanna Phillips singing Non mi dir from Don Giovanni]
AMY LOU: “The first time was when I was standing with a camera in my hand six or seven feet away from a woman who was singing full voice. And I felt it all over my body like somebody’d turned a firehose on me. And ever since then, it just opened up, and I get it. I get these beautiful instruments.”