The idea of women in castle parapets wearing powdered wigs, men in a Viking costumes and notes in a foreign language held for an eternity is what many might think of when they conjure images of opera, but it’s the course that singer/composer Omar Najmi hopes to steer the art from away from.
And so the Boston Lyric Opera singer has written his first original operatic work set in a school for the blind and featuring performers who are both sighted, partially sighted and blind.
“This is significant for me because it’s my first time both composing and producing,” said Najmi. “We all wanted to put something together. We’re into modern music and wanted something new. I decided to try my hand at composing it. At the same time, I rediscovered this play that I read in my AP Spanish class in high school. I thought, ‘Wow, that would make the best opera.’ It’s been three years in the making. The language is beautiful and the story is larger than life. It has something unique and includes and audience that’s not typically been served or featured in the operatic medium.”
The play’s big premiere came last week in Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts, but prior to that they had been practicing for several weeks in the South End at City Lights.
City Lights Director Duggan Hill said he was floored by the operatic revolution that took shape in his center over the past few weeks.
“I said, ‘Let’s do it,’ when I heard it was opera,” he said. “We don’t have much of that. Then I started to see what it was that was going on. This idea of producing an opera with blind performers is incredible. You can see it happening. It’s very uplifting for them and everyone else. They’re all great singers, but it really was wonderful to have it here.”
The new work is set in a school for the blind and 10 of the 12 characters are blind and the work is in Spanish with a podcast for translation. While not every person in the work is sight-challenged in real life, a number actually are. The work has been buoyed by a grant from the Boston Foundation to improve access and representation in the arts for groups like the sight-challenged.
As such, one of the lead roles is played by John Castillo, who was born in Venezuela and lives in Boston. He has been blind since birth and is training as an opera singer as well.
He was an immediate success.
However, because he can’t read a score, he is very skilled at learning music by hearing and memorizing. That as a challenge with a new work because it has never been performed or recorded before. To help, Castillo’s father coached him through the music long before starting rehearsals.
Najmi said the result has been amazing.
“He has perfect pitch and it’s incredible how he learns the music in his memory,” he said. “He was actually light years ahead of everyone else on the first day of rehearsals.”
What Najmi and Music Director Brandon Shapiro are trying to do is revolutionize opera and take it to a new place during a time when the traditional model is struggling.
“This is a time of major revolution in opera and probably arts in general,” said Najmi. “Over the past decade, many major opera houses in the U.S. and worldwide have closed their doors. They cannot make it financially. We wanted to change the definition of what the opera genre can be and who it can be about. Instead of having a structured company where I’m at the head and there’s a company underneath me, we put everyone in an equal structure where we’re all equal participants.”
Shapiro said another part of that revolution is in the composition of the company, where there is no chorus and everyone plays a character with their own parts. Additionally, he doesn’t stand up like a typical opera conductor.
“This is done without a conductor,” he said. “Following a conductor is an inherently sighted thing. If we took that traditional aspect away, it put everyone on stage on an even plane in real, mutual collaboration. That was kind of a revolution for opera in and of itself.”
‘En la ardiente oscuridad’ (In the Burning Darkness) premiered last weekend, but Najmi said he believes it will be a first step for the production, with it hopefully playing in many other places.