The new opera collective ROCOpera will debut during next month's online Rochester Fringe Festival, with audiences picking their favorite arias for a countdown
Trained at the Peabody Conservatory and Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance, soprano Kerri Lynn Slominski has performed in Texas, Arkansas, "up and down the East Coast" in her words, and in Italy. But not very often in the Rochester area, to the Spencerport High School graduate's disappointment — and she's not alone.
"We have a tremendous amount of professional, classically trained musicians in Rochester, and many of them do not have opportunities. It's sad, in my eyes," Slominski said. "I'm a Rochester native, and I go outside of Rochester to perform."
That situation was among the prods for Slominski and two other sopranos, Elisabeth Halliday-Quan and Heather Holmquest, to create ROCOpera, an opera collective designed to produce and promote new works as well as reinterpret the traditional canon for modern sensibilities — and to bring opera out of the concert halls and into everyday spaces.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, ROCOpera's debut performance indeed will be out of the concert hall — out of physical space, period. "Total Request Live (TRL): The Opera Edition" will be presented online throughout the course of the 2020 KeyBand Rochester Fringe Festival, one of 170-plus events as part of the 12-day festival next month, which is all online this year from Sept. 15 through Sept. 26. "TRL" will be a free show, with donations accepted.
In its ninth year, the Fringe fest is a celebration of the creative spirit in all its forms, offering a bit of everything — dance, serious drama, comedy, improv, spoken word, storytelling, visual arts, interactive works, magic, circus arts, film, even yo-yo expertise, plus music in many a genre, ranging from a cappella to alt-rock, brass church bells to Japanese drumming to opera. The fest last year brought more than 100,000 people out to Rochester last year for a smorgasboard of the arts, something for just about every taste.
"TRL" was Slominski's brainchild, a way to get audiences directly involved with and invested in the show. Up until Sept. 10, people may vote online for their favorite opera arias, as well as what they want a particular singer — there are seven involved in the performance (the three founders and Pablo Bustos, Tyler Cassidy-Heacock, Juli Elliott and Nicholas Kilkenny, plus pianists Alex Kuczynski and Lee Wright) — to sing. The arias receiving the most votes will be presented in a countdown similar to the MTV music-video show from some years back.
"We were trying to find a way to get our audience involved — we wanted them to have complete control over what we're doing," Slominski said. "I'm a millennial — I grew up with MTV, I used to watch the music video countdown as a teenager. I had this idea, what if we got to audience to vote on the arias?" The Fringe festival seemed the perfect place to launch the show — and the collective — due both to its popularity and the experimental, off-kilter nature of many of its shows. A TRL-themed opera show seemed a perfect match.
And it's in keeping with the collective's mission: "Basically, we wanted to create opera that is by and for the city of Rochester," Slominski said: presenting new works by living perfromers; reinventing older works (the big guns of the operatic universe, like "La Bohéme" or "La Traviata," with modern sensibilities, and presenting opera in places outside its traditional settings (and with singers not necessarily in gowns and tuxedoes) — showcasing opera as living, breathing art and entertainment rather than a musical museum piece. Slominski said she's in negotiation with various venues — which generally host rock or jazz shows — to host ROCOpera once the pandemic is over and entertainment venues can re-open their doors.
"We want to basically show the audience that opera is still relevant — and it's pretty cool!" she said.
You can vote for the arias at shorturl.at/arM57. The performance will be available starting Sept. 15 and running the length of the festival at rochesterfringe.com.
On the Fringe
“TRL: Opera Edition” is but one of more than 175 virtual productions to be presented next month as part of the “KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival @Home.” This year, thanks to the novel coronavirus, gatherings for performances are out — the 2019 festival included more than 665 performances in over 25 venues — but Fringe is still a going concern, for the full scheduled dozen days. The fest will take place online from Sept. 15 through Sept. 26, with a mixture or ticketed and free events as in a normal year.
“Unfortunately, there won’t be any giant floating sea creatures in my living room,” state Sen. Joe Morelle said in an online press conference Tuesday, referring to last year’s popular Plasticiens Volants aerial puppet show. “But I do look forward to tuning in to the many different events and enjoying the festival at home.”
Tickets for the shows went on sale Tuesday; they can be ordered at rochesterfringe.com, where a complete schedule also went up Tuesday with short descriptions of each show.
“We are delighted by the number of artists — from all over the greater Rochester area, the U.S. and the world — who would not be daunted by either a global pandemic or the virtual world, and seized the opportunity to be creative and connect with audiences,” festival producer Erica Fee stated in a release. “The fact that we have so many productions participating this year proves that there’s a real need for virtual platforms such as these, which allow for artists’ voices to be heard and communities to address difficult issues during these difficult times.”
Indeed, many of the shows address aspects of the Black, LGBTQ, Deaf and senior experiences — and some directly address the pandemic and associated lockdown. In the comedic “Edith vs. Quarantine: 89 & One Touch Cookie,” for instance, an octogenarian who hasn’t left her New York City apartment since the virus hit shares her journey — Zooming with her late husband, singing to her taxidermied cat, pretending to be a snake. In “The Canadian Wiggler,” amid the lockdown in May, a lonely man (played by well-known local actor Rick Staropoli) and a troubled young woman (played by Emma Neukirch, a second year Illustration major at Rochester Institute of Technology) meet by chance in a remote area of a park during the height of the pandemic, finding solace they seek with the help of an elusive bird.
There are several returning favorites this year: Last year’s sold-out “Between Silences,” in which eight of Rochester’s leading actresses portray 17 different women in various situations, gets a reprise. The Brooklyn-based noir-folk-cabaret duo Charming Disaster, who played four shows at Nox cocktail lounge last year, is on the itinerary, again keying each of their songs to tarot cards drawn by sudiance members, as is Hobart and William Smith alumna Katherine Marino’s whimsical mix of mime, ballet and performance art, “Muffin Theatre Presents, A Show with Cookies,” in a film of last year’s Fringe show. BIODANCE artists, who have presented sold-out Frange shows routinely, will present a series of video shorts.
Also returning: Nate DiMeo’s Pultizer-nominated podcast “The Memory Palace.” Last year Fringe commissioned DiMeo and The Memory Palace for a “George Eastman” podcast; this year brings two more local-history podcasts: “From the Parking Lot” (a world premiere) about Rochester’s Corinthian Hall where Frederick Douglass gave his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech, and “High Falls,” which debuted in last year’s “On-Site Listening Experience.” Both of the new episodes will be available for free via Radiotopia, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher, as well as the Fringe website.
To give a taste of the diversity of Fringe, here’s a small sampling of the performances:
• In the one-woman, socially relevant comedy that Orlando Weekly said “skewers racial stereotypes, “Mo-to-the-onole” (another returning Fringe show, though reimagined for the online medium) is about a Black teen from the Bronx who must wear a monocle after her father loses their vision insurance.
• Al Biles and Gen Jam is an unconventional jazz duo — Rochester Institute of Technology professor emeritus Al Biles is a human trumpet player, while Gen Jam, or the Genetic Jammer, is computer software that evolves its musical ideas in real time. They’ll be listening to and replying to each other in spontaneous improvisation on tunes from a number of sources: bop, swing, Latin, pop.
• One woman plays multiple characters in a fictional exploration of the 2006 shooting in an Amish community schoolhouse in Jessica Dickey’s “The Amish Project.”
• “Conversations” is a collection of dance works (traditional and contemporary) stemming from the rich and diverse cultural practices from Africa — including performances by the Brockport-based Sankofa African Dance and Drum Ensemble, Guinean drummer Mohamed Diaby, and choreography by Trinidad’s Jenise Anthony and Kelly Johnson.
• In a must for fans of “The Office,” Literally Entertainment presents “The Scranton Strangler: An Office Musical,” a parody of the TV series in which a killer targets the staff at Dunder Mifflin.
• The Bard gets a skewering as Fringe favorites Matt and Heidi Brucker Morgan and their team will create a visual production of their bawdy Shakespeare-based drinking game: "Shotspeare Presents the Complete Works of William Shakespeare ... sort of."
The complete schedule, ticket information, sponsor list and merchandise store are all at rochesterfringe.com.