Opera in Service of Its Audience

Director James Darrah has a cinematic vision for the future of live performance.

james darrah
Christina Gandolfo

When I ask composer Ellen Reid what people should know about her friend and collaborator James Darrah, her answer is straightforward and concise: his name.

Why? Because “James is the future,” she says. “He comes from a place of knowing and loving so many art forms, and he can move between them all fluidly. James is opera.”

One sunny Friday in early December of last year, Darrah was busy being opera at the Ancient Order of the Wooden Skull animation studio in Glendale. When I arrived, the Los Angeles–based opera director was wrapping up a phone meeting with Jennifer Rivera, the executive director and CEO of Long Beach Opera. Maybe they were discussing the socially distanced performance of Philip Glass’s Les Enfants Terribles that Darrah was preparing to direct for the company on a parking-garage roof in May. Or perhaps they were making longer-term plans; in February, LBO would announce Darrah as its new artistic director and chief creative officer, only the third in the company’s 42-year history.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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Inside the studio, Darrah was overseeing the production of Boston Lyric Opera’s stop-motion animated version of Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Darrah had planned to direct the opera live in Boston. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, making that impossible, he encouraged the company to reimagine it digitally. The animated version streamed online from January to June and was praised as “[BLO’s] most ambitious and spectacular project of the season” by the Boston Globe. Another Darrah project, the episodic opera series desert in, cocreated with Reid and playwright Christopher Oscar Peña (Jane the Virgin, Insecure), debuted in June and is currently available on BLO’s website.

les enfants terribles, opera omaha
James Darrah’s production of “Les Enfants Terribles” for Opera Omaha highlights the dance aspects of Philip Glass’s composition. A version of it opened at Long Beach Opera in May.
Adam Larsen

NETWORK EFFECT

A graduate of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Darrah, who is 37, discovered the Ancient Order of the Wooden Skull team through alumni connections. The first time he walked into the studio’s lobby, he knew it was the perfect space in which to bring Poe’s tale to musical life. Packed with horror-film memorabilia, old Vincent Price posters, and ghostly miniatures from past projects, the room resonated with Darrah; as a boy in the Midwest, he’d inherited a passion for cinema thanks to his grandmother’s dramatic home presentations of classic horror films.

Darrah was giving me a tour of the Ancient Order lobby when he was called to the back of the studio to supervise a scene—his team needed input on the precise tilt of a character’s head. They had created miniatures of each of the opera’s characters using a 3-D printer. Meticulously designed, each Barbie doll–size figurine was modeled after the opera singer voicing it and dressed in stylized period attire conceived by French American costume designer Camille Assaf. In rehearsals with singers for live staged productions, Darrah is physical, hyperfocused, emotionally in tune; he possesses an actor’s somatic command, wielding his piercing blue eyes like swords, conveying heartache with a gesture. Even when directing a plastic doll’s movements, he tapped into the emotion behind the action, using his own body to demonstrate.

When he wasn’t needed on set, Darrah monitored the film’s production schedule and consulted on design details. Standing in front of a dusty-green, dollhouse-size House of Usher, I watched as he and a team member finalized the design of a small leather chair, taking several minutes to discuss and consider its imagined provenance and position in a scene before deciding on its exact color shade and weathering.

los angeles chamber orchestra, close quarters
Darrah with the set of “Close Quarters,” a 14-episode digital series he created for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 2020–21 season.
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

In addition to overseeing the Usher shoot that day, Darrah reviewed edits for the live-action film version of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs he produced for Opera Philadelphia and organized an upcoming film shoot for Close Quarters, a visually arresting 14-episode digital series he created for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 2020–21 season (streaming on demand now). Wherever he directed his attention, his attitude was consistent: contagious enthusiasm for the art at hand.

Darrah is an artistic polyglot. Fluent in the languages of film, theater, television, dance, visual art, and musical styles as disparate as French baroque opera and current queer pop, he is forging a new path for opera that is cinematic, expansive, inclusive, and radical.

While Darrah is not new to the opera scene, his star is rising now in part because his skill set is so well suited to the new realities brought on by the COVID pandemic. For years, he has pushed opera companies to consider reaching wider audiences by producing more cinematic digital content. When concert halls and opera houses shuttered because of the pandemic, classical music organizations were forced to do just that, and Darrah was ready and able to lead the way.

“I really want to change the game,” he says, describing a future in which a cohort of opera companies might launch a Netflix-style streaming service or produce digital shorts to create buzz ahead of a live production.

Darrah says opera companies ought to take a cue from Hollywood and “should be presenting what’s new, what’s coming up, commissioning new works from composers, working with people in the film industry, tying digital and live opera together with more diversity.”

“We don’t all watch the same movies. So why don’t opera companies start programming like streaming services and studios do? I would love to see opera companies remove the fear quotient related to philanthropy and take more risks,” he says.

This July and August, Darrah’s affinity for digital operatic content and artistic risk-taking will be visible on the Santa Fe Opera stage, where he is directing the world premiere of John Corigliano and Mark Adamo’s The Lord of Cries. Billed as a blend of Dracula and The Bacchae, it is “an opera of excess in a really exciting way,” Darrah says, adding that the production will include a digital component filmed during rehearsals and a bold design.

opera philadelphia, soldier songs, anderson nunnelley, james darrah
Associate producer Anderson Nunnelley (left) and Darrah during the production of Opera Philadelphia’s “Soldier Songs.”
Opera Philadelphia
opera philadelphia, soldier songs, johnathan mccullough
Johnathan McCullough, in the lead role of Soldier, experiences a flashback to his 18th birthday and enlisting in the military.
Opera Philadelphia

OPEN-AIR SHOWS

Born in San Antonio, Texas, but raised primarily in St. Louis, Missouri, Darrah comes from a family more focused on science than art. Even his mother, who studied art in college, did so through a scientific lens, in a program that involved drawing detailed, anatomically accurate human hearts and brains as training to be a medical illustrator.

As a boy, Darrah learned to read music playing the clarinet and horn, but his family viewed creative outlets as enriching hobbies, not the stuff of a career. Darrah’s father, an aerospace engineer, often took his three sons to stunt-flying exhibitions around St. Louis.

Darrah recalls growing up around “fighter planes and air shows and aerospace.” But while those around him looked up and saw scientific innovation and marvels of engineering, Darrah saw choreography, beauty, operatic drama in the skies. “There was a certain kind of magic to the awe and spectacle of that,” he says.

Darrah’s family moved to Southern California when he was a teen. In high school in Rancho Cucamonga, he says, he was “the kind of student who had a 56 percent absence rate and a 4.0 GPA.” He fell in love with Greek mythology and Shakespeare. Bored by standard high school curriculum literature, he wanted more. “I [didn’t] want to read The Scarlet Letter. I’d already read it,” he says. Instead, he was interested in “one of Shakespeare’s plays that nobody talks about” or exploring Virgil’s Aeneid through the lens of a Purcell opera.

In college at the University of La Verne, Darrah, who has thick dirty-blond hair and classic Hollywood good looks, initially focused on acting, performing in dozens of plays. At some point, a professor suggested he consider directing, pointing out that as an actor he had a strong instinct to direct himself.

By the time he enrolled as a graduate student at UCLA in his early 20s, Darrah was increasingly intrigued by opera, in particular the dramatically rich, mythological works of Handel. “You listen to baroque opera, and suddenly you realize what the human voice can actually do,” he says. “So I started absorbing as much opera as I could.”

At UCLA, he sought out Peter Kazaras, the head of the opera program at the Herb Alpert School of Music. Darrah wasn’t supposed to be at the music school, and no one from his program had ever crossed over to work in opera before. But, he says, “luckily for me, Kazaras just made it all happen.” Kazaras also introduced Darrah to Stephen Wadsworth, with whom the young director studied at Juilliard during the last year of his MFA program.

In his late 20s and early 30s, Darrah’s career was defined by exciting collaborations. He worked with singers, composers, and others, including many he’d met at UCLA and Juilliard, eventually forming an L.A. collective called Chromatic with his ex-wife, the mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell.

Chromatic generated beautiful, emotionally visceral productions of operas by Handel and other composers across the United States and Europe. It produced innovative galas, installation art, and video works as well.

Darrah also developed a creative partnership with Michael Tilson Thomas, then the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Together, they enlivened concerts for the symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic by adding visual and theatrical elements. “Michael helped me get rid of the bullshit pretension factor,” Darrah says. “At the end of the day, it’s about the music.”

After a few years, Chromatic dissolved. Moving away from the idea of an insular group, Darrah started approaching artistic collaborations from a more open and expansive perspective. During this period, he also began experimenting with the fertile intersection of opera and cinema, enhancing stage productions with digital elements and working with superstar mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato to produce a highly stylized, modern music video.

Now in a committed relationship with a man, Darrah identifies as bisexual. It’s an identity he says wasn’t always welcome or accepted in the opera world. There was an “echelon of elitism around the gay culture of opera that identified me as not necessarily fitting into that,” he explains.

In part, that bias reflects a larger generational shift taking place in opera. A millennial, Darrah sees the world as post-gender, a place where limiting or exclusive definitions are out-of-date. He doesn’t do neat categories and boxes. Not for himself or his art. Opera and film. Classical and pop. Gay and straight and queer and bi and trans. It is always and—never or.

Among Darrah’s ever-expanding list of collaborators are composers like Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid, like-minded generational peers. In 2016, he directed the world premiere of Mazzoli’s operatic adaptation of the Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves. At the same time, he was in the midst of creating another new opera with Reid and playwright Roxie Perkins. Together, they developed and workshopped the 2018 opera prism, a searing exploration of sexual assault and PTSD filtered through an intensely personal, emotional, and conceptual story line. The opera, whose premiere left me feeling as if I’d just watched an indie art film, won Reid the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

“There’s something about this medium [Darrah] works in that is not director-forward,” Reid tells me. “So other people get the boost from his brilliance, myself included.”

Work in service of art. Music first always. A lack of ego. In conversations about Darrah with his close collaborators, those qualities come up repeatedly. As Reid puts it, “he is so great at making work that still keeps the music whole. A lot of directors do stuff that can get between the listener and the music. James has a way of making music even more resonant through what he’s doing on the stage.”

Even though he is adept at putting others—and the music—first, Darrah is no wallflower. Reid jokes that the first time she and Darrah met for drinks, the decibel level in the bar surged. As they talked about art, music, and ideas for future projects, they became more animated, more excited, louder.

Christopher Rountree, a Los Angeles–based conductor with whom Darrah has a close personal and artistic relationship, says that one of Darrah’s greatest strengths is his enthusiasm. In opera rehearsals, he says, Darrah’s passion, energy, and empathy coax powerful performances out of singers. In meetings with administrators, that same zeal can inspire funding, risk-taking, or even systemic change.

“I think it’s part of his genius,” Rountree explains. “He has this infectious, contagious energy and excitement about art being the all, everything.” At dinner with other creative types, Rountree says, sometimes the vibe is “Let’s not talk about making art because we need some separation between life and work. But with James, it’s like no, no, no, no, let us bleed art.”

Back at the Ancient Order of the Wooden Skull last year, I witnessed firsthand what Darrah’s peers admire about him: his collaborative spirit and unique ability to toggle effortlessly between mediums; the way he simultaneously sees the big picture and attends to the smallest detail; his emotionally intelligent approach to performance and storytelling; his vocal advocacy for genre-busting, bold, cinematic art that increases accessibility, diversity, and inclusion and pushes opera forward.

With his new role at Long Beach Opera, as well as his ongoing work with Los Angeles Opera, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Opera Omaha, the Santa Fe Opera, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Opera Philadelphia, Boston Lyric Opera, and many others, he has the skills and platform necessary to transform his field.

boston lyric opera, the fall of the house of usher, william
Darrah oversaw the production of Boston Lyric Opera’s stop-motion animated version of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the main character, William, sits astride a galloping horse.
Boston Lyric Opera
william and roderick, boston lyric opera, the fall of the house of usher
William and Roderick, another character from “House of Usher.”
Boston Lyric Opera

THE NEW NORMAL

The pandemic devastated the opera industry, leaving artists unemployed, opera houses dark, and company budgets gutted. It is hard to imagine opera as we knew it returning to its pre-pandemic state anytime soon, if ever.

Spend time in Darrah-land, and you might not notice that the pandemic put opera on pause for a year, or miss the way it was. For so long, opera has been about the past, the old, the traditional. Two or three years ago, Darrah’s pitch to opera companies to produce interdisciplinary operatic films seemed like a stretch, an unnecessary risk, even a threat to conventional live performances. But after a year of consuming art through screens, suddenly his ideas feel less far-fetched.

Can we return to a steady diet of recycled Carmens and musty Toscas? Or will we crave new works, opera as must-see contemporary art? Will we book a flight to New York to catch Aida at the Met? Or will we binge the latest opera series streaming on demand in our living rooms? The opportunities for reinvigoration are considerable and exciting.

Maybe the problem that opera has long struggled to solve—how to attract younger, more-diverse audiences—now has an answer. Rent an animated opera that unfolds like a riveting art film. Stream a visual album. Attend genre-bending live performances presented cinematically. See opera Darrah’s way. No more boxes or boundaries. Just more opera, more art.•

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