BY ANNA JENSEN
In her junior year of high school, first-year vocal performance major Rowen Sabala played lead role in a episodic television Opera entitled “Vireo.”
Her artistic lifestyle began with a love for theatre. Sabala went to school in Santa Ana, California, at the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA). That’s where she began to involve herself in the chorus and opera.
Sabala had been singing opera for six years when she landed the lead in “Vireo.”
The composer of the opera, Lisa Bielawa, had been working with a curator in her town who led her to OCSA to find a high school female soprano to play the part she was looking for.
Thirty girls auditioned, five were called back, and 30 minutes after her callback, Sabala received the email inviting her to be the lead.
The TV show spans over 12 episodes ranging from 8-15 minutes. All episodes together make up a full-length, 2-3 hour opera.
“When people think of a traditional opera, they think of stages or performing in Carnegie Hall,” Sabala said. “But instead of filming on one stage, we filmed it in a television style, while getting to travel to various locations. Our three main filming locations (were) L.A., San Francisco, and New York.”
One of the episodes was shot at the Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.
They had three hours to film an entire episode and were granted after-hour access to Alcatraz.
“We filmed from 7 p.m. to midnight. It was so eerie but it was also very raw,” Sabala said. “We filmed in the hospital wing, which is authorized personal only. It was the single most stressful episode we ever filmed. However, it was also my absolute favorite.”
The opera centers around a 14-year-old girl, Vireo, played by Sabala.
The character explores the discovery of mental illness and hysteria.
The story bounces around three centuries — the 16th, 18th and 20th — and jumps back and forth in each episode depending on what is happening at certain points within the storyline.
Vireo is miserable with the world she is in. She is being treated as an object since she is perceived as different from everyone else due to her possible mental illness.
“To cope, Vireo creates two other centuries,” Sabala said. “So, in her mind, Vireo is living in three different centuries. The Mother, the Doctor, and the Doctor’s assistant, Raphael, play along with Vireo’s century changes in order to better understand what exactly is wrong with her, so there are many costume changes, which represent each century she perceives it to be at that time.”
It is alluded to that Vireo might be suffering from hysteria
and/or schizophrenia, but up until episode 12 it is left to the viewers to decide if what she is seeing is real or only in her mind.
Vireo “creates” some friends and follows voices throughout the opera, and while the doctor and her mother don’t see them, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t real, Sabala said.
Much of the plot was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials and the birth age of hysteria.
“(The opera) is pretty dark, but in a tragically beautiful way,” Sabala said. “Bad things do happen, but the ideas behind them are beautiful.”
Because of all of the scene shifts, the extensively wide range of instruments and the in-depth acting, it would be next to impossible to perform on a stage, Sabala said.
“The opera is unique in part because of the way it is performed,” Sabala said. “It is a very modern take on classic opera and the music mimics that idea, using instruments that would not normally be associated with an opera, from the Hurdy-gurdy to Partch instruments to a toy piano.”
Sabala took a gap semester to finish filming before continuing with school.
She was cast for the role in 2014 and filming wrapped up on Jan. 21, 2017.
Sabala left New York and flew to Iowa where she started school that Monday.
“I was very timid when I started the show, but throughout the process I found my confidence,” Sabala said. “Lisa became a sister figure in my life and taught me how to be confident, self-sufficient and trust in what I know is best for me. Most importantly, I learned a new meaning to the word ‘family.’”