‘Mirrorflores’: The Music Academy Looks Back — and Forward

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 19, 2021

Concern for safety protocols with the ever-changing pandemic caused the Music Academy of the West to commit to converting its annual Opera Scenes production into an audience-free, socially distanced cinematic opus this summer. But for James Darrah, the creative director of Music Academy of the West’s Vocal Institute, Mirrorflores — a clever play on words referencing reflection on the MAW campus and history — wasn’t just about accommodating COVID protocols.

“I’m interested in pushing the institute into areas that are representative of the future of opera,” Darrah said. “This is our first little step, dipping our feet in the water of new uncharted territory.”

Darrah — who made grand splashes at MAW in 2019 via bringing Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain to the Academy just four years after its world premiere and creating a wildly inventive Opera Scenes that same summer that immersed itself in various indoor and outdoor spaces at Miraflores while largely focusing on new works — has been exploring the intersection of theater, opera, and film in recent years himself. He has served as director-screenwriter-producer on such projects as a series of 16 short films borne of dozens of composers’ works inspiring episodic visuals in a new orchestral series called Close Quarters and devising and directing two projects with Boston Lyric Opera, including a new animated feature-length film of Philip Glass’s Edgar Allan Poe opera The Fall of the House of Usher

Mirrorflores is also a collaborative effort, with MAW Director of Music John Churchwell engaged, as well as the MAW vocal fellows themselves. The two faculty members began by choosing a repertoire of early music, largely mythologically based, and creating something with a little more of a postmodern/abstract feel for the arias. The fellows then forged ahead with Darrah in coming up with a theme for the 45-minute film. 

“It was more important to have the fellows feel a part of the fabric than to have me write a grand screenplay that I force them all to make with no investment,” he said. “I wanted them to have the experience of working on something that was more like visual poetry, more abstract and impressionistic.” 

The forced sense of isolation produced by the pandemic and considering how people seek connection and identity emerged as a central theme.

“My first prompt to them was to think how many times a day do they look at themselves in the mirror,” Darrah recalled. “We all look at ourselves and everyone has a face they make when they look in the mirror. So, we talked about identity in the way that we see ourselves versus how other people see us.”

That notion of duality is what anchored the approach to the story that develops in Mirrorflores.

“We riffed on Handel’s ‘Alcina and Orlando’ and we came up with a sorceress, a powerful female central figure character, and crafted something original that explored some of those issues through the lens of mythology and the 1990s. It became a situation where people are pulled to this central figure and if they don’t meet her standards or they don’t do what she’s expecting, she traps them within the 1920s in a silent film on the same estate – they wake up and they’re in a totally different era. The story is told visually through the music and leads to all of them realizing that they have agency and that they can get out of that.”

The estate, of course, is Miraflores itself — the MAW campus that still sports all sorts of buildings, architecture, gardens, fountains and more from an earlier era. Both Darrah and the institute’s administration were thrilled to capture it on film, he said. 

“Miraflores looks incredible,” he said. “It’s like we’re already working on a film set that is enviable where more than half of the production design was already done for us because the campus is so beautiful. I’m excited for people to see it and see if they recognize where things are.”

The campus and the shift in eras became something of a play within the film, adding to the expressionist elements, as well as increasing the educational aspects of the project for the fellows. So was the recording process — which broke new ground in turning Hahn Hall into a recording studio — as Darrah didn’t have the singer lip-synch to a video but instead took the soundtrack in a less realistic direction.

“I had them consider what it would take to sing the arias as an impressionist art song, and what that would be like? I think it made them feel empowered with a character that was kind of unmoored from prestige. And it helped them take the pastiche of disparate arias that weren’t connected at all and see how they could create an original, visually-told story that can connect all of them.”

Using the studio recording process also let the fellows explore the acting — and acting for film — side of their art untethered from singing live.

“They got to explore how to calibrate reactions and physical movement and choreography for the camera, especially with the silent film aspect,” Darrah said. “They all embraced it and some of them even surprised me with how well they understood the cinematic aspect.”

On the eve of its world premiere on Saturday evening, Darrah said he was excited about how Mirrorflores might represent a determined, no-going-back leap into a new reality for the vocal program.

“It’s not a placeholder for live performance,” Darrah said, adding that the fellows realizing they can escape the sorcerer’s trap also serves as a metaphor for the MAW program itself.

“I am more than ready for the Vocal Institute to embrace its potential as a progressive 21st century training program. We need to be a program that is adaptive and is looking at trends which are that opera isn’t stagnant and immovable. This is a great step toward the idea that opera singers are holistic artists capable of so much more.”

This Week @ MAW

The 2021 Summer Festival wrapped up its live events last weekend, but there are three online-only opportunities premiering this week, and a few additional streaming events that can still be viewed on demand. 


The Sing! Children’s Chorus and Concert Choir’s virtual concert — which last year was an early miracle of modern editing techniques making Zoom palatable for choral singing — returns having once again turned the free, after-school choral initiative for students in grades 1-8 into a COVID-safe online activity with online to virtual rehearsals and performances. The ambitious program features music from Arvo Pärt’s “Songs from Childhood,” “Rise” by Arianne Abela, and “Laudamus Te” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria before concluding with Sound Mural No. 2 by Sing! students and faculty. The program was directed and mixed by faculty member Daniel Newman-Lessler. (Premieres at 5 pm; streaming; free with digital ticket.)


MAW’s second annual Digital Challenge Competition — created during the first summer of the COVID pandemic — invites the current fellows to craft content aimed at an online audience. The submissions, which feature the fellows’ musical performances and a multimedia approach, may combine performance with storytelling, education, activism, artistic citizenship, and/or engagement designed for a specific audience or community. The professional judges evaluate the entries on musical/artistic excellence, technical proficiency (including sound and video quality), creativity, and innovation. While last year’s challenge offered multiple awards, a single fellow will take home the $5,000 prize today. (Premieres at 5 pm; streaming; free with digital ticket.) 


The season comes to a complete close with one of the more boundary-busting and innovative programs in MAW’s history: an original cinematic opera piece cleverly called Mirrorflores that serves as the COVID-compliant substitute for the traditional MAW’s Opera Scenes. Here’s the complete musical bill of fare that acts as the soundtrack to the 45-minute film, which leans heavily on Handel. Rameau’s “Des biens que Venus nous dispense” from Dardanus will be sung by mezzo-soprano Grace Skinner, mezzo-soprano and tenor Jordan Costa, with Bin Yu Sanford on piano; Handel’s “Dover, giustizia” from Ariodante will be performed by bass-baritone Lorenzo Zapata with pianist Ga-Young Park; selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (“See, I obey,” ”Turn thine eyes,” “My torch indeed,” and “They shall be as happy”) are delivered by soprano Anush Avetisyan, mezzo-soprano Olivia Johnson, and baritone Byron J. Mayes, with pianist Alexander Soloway; and selections from Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride (“Quel silence effrayant! … Dieux! Qui me poursuivez” and “Quel languag accablant… Unis dès la plus tendre enfance”) sung by tenor Josh Berg and bass-baritone Korin Thomas-Smith, with Ga-Young Park on piano. Then it’s back to Handel for the final three musical works, starting with selections from Serse (“Ingannata Romilda,” “L’amerete?” and “Se bramate d’amar”) from soprano Kaileigh Riess and mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, with Sanford on piano; mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce performing “Tu prepararti a morire” from Ariodante, with pianist Juan Lázaro, who also accompanies soprano Katherine Lerner Lee and tenor Shawn Roth for “As steals the morn upon the night” from L’Allegro, il Pensieroso, ed il Moderato. (5 pm; streaming; $10, includes 30-day viewing period.)


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