The words opera and Alcatraz seldom occur in the same thought or sentence, let alone the title for a blog post. However, earlier this year I had the chance to serve as the official still photographer for the production of an episode of a serialized made-for-television opera that was staged in the cell block on Alcatraz one evening after all the tourists had gone home.
The opera in question is Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser, written by composer Lisa Bielawa with libretto by Erik Ehn. Conceived more than two decades ago as a "conventional" opera, Vireo was never completed or performed in that format. However, the opera was recently re-imagined as a television serial consisting of twelve 10- to 12-minute episodes and is now in production by KCET-LA under the direction of Charles Otte. The full opera will be released by KCET in the spring of 2017, but the first two episodes, plus interviews and other background information, can be seen now on the KCET website.
I became involved with this project through a bit of covert nepotism: you see, Lisa Bielawa is my niece, so I have followed the development of the new Vireo project from its inception, albeit at a distance. When I learned that one episode would be shot on Alcatraz at a time when I would be in the Bay Area I hoped that I might tag along to see and photograph the event, but when I learned about the strict limitations on the number of persons to be allowed on Alcatraz after hours by the National Park Service I gave up on that idea.
Fortunately for me, the Vireo team was having difficulty identifying a photographer to document the Alcatraz episode. Lisa said "I know a photographer who is available and would donate his services" and pointed the Vireo folks here to my website. Apparently what they saw convinced them that I could do the job. As a result, I found myself identified as the "photographer" on the tightly-regulated list of 49 people who boarded the boat to Alcatraz -- actors in costume, wardrobe and make-up assistants, musicians, and the large entourage of people and equipment needed to set up an on-site video production studio in the Alcatraz cell block. They all thought I was just "some photographer Lisa knows." Only she and I thought it was a little strange!
My assignment was to photograph the entire production -- from the boat ride to Alcatraz to behind-the-scenes shots of performers, musicians, and production crew, to shots of the performances in progress. The Vireo production team would use these photographs for their social media campaign and other publications. I had never done anything like this before -- it was both daunting and exhilarating, an experience I will never forget.
The first scene was shot in the main cell block with Greg Purnhagen (in the role of Doctor/Priest) accompanied by six vocalists and a hurdy-gurdy.
The remainder of the action moved upstairs to the hospital cells. After sunset the photographic conditions became increasingly challenging because I could rely only on the banks of LED lights used for video recording. I'm fortunate to have have a camera that can "see in the dark." (Digression for photography nerds: all of the remaining photos in this post were taken at ISO 12,800.)
One hospital cell was converted to a video production studio. Here, the only lights were the Director's video monitor and the status lights of electronic equipment. I thought that this photograph was impossible under these conditions but I took it anyway.
A string quartet and a handbell choir provided accompaniment for the hospital cell scenes.
The tight production schedule was complicated by the need to shoot each scene twice -- in 19th century and 21st century dress -- to facilitate cutting between these takes when putting together the final video.
After six hours of intense work the cast, musicians, and production crew left the Alcatraz dock at midnight, just beating the National Park Service-imposed deadline for our departure.
From a photographic perspective, it was a success -- the Vireo team liked the images that I provided them and used them in several stories about the event (such as this one). Better yet, it looks like I will have the opportunity to photograph the last two episodes of Vireo in January. This time, I will have some idea about what I'm getting into!