When I arrived at the Buddies in Bad Times theatre for the Mýthos: A Crimson Chorus workshop showcase on Saturday August 25, it was dominated by dim red lighting, smoke that would erupt out of mysterious places, and random bursts of guitar from the rehearsing band.
At about 7:15pm, writer and director, Heather Jopling came onto the stage to welcome us, point out the audience surveys in our programs and to urge us to leave the theatre immediately following the performance as there was another event immediately following the show.Jopling, a University of Ottawa Theatre graduate grew up listening to Jesus Christ Superstar and other such rock operas, and this helped determine the musical direction for the show.
She performed semi-professionally in Ottawa until she moved to Toronto to be with her fiancé (now husband). Once here, she worked in banking, but after having her daughter 12 years ago, decided she needed an artistic outlet and started to write and perform again.
Today, she self-identifies more as a writer; her repertoire includes more comedy than drama: one-woman shows, romantic comedy screenplays and 3 diversity-friendly children’s books (produced by her own publishing company, Nickname Press). Mýthos: The Crimson Chorus is not like anything she’s done before.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jopling earlier that day. This show was not a full performance, but the culmination of a five-day intensive workshop on the music. It is a vampire rock opera – which contrary to what you may assume, is not a blend between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and From Dusk Till Dawn.
If there’s anything that she wanted for her show, it was a lack of campy stereotypical vampire effects. “I don’t care if the title changes, yes we can re-work the music,” she says, “As long as we don’t end up with a line of vampires with fangs singing: I want to drink your blood.” She compares it to Beauty and the Beast. “Instead of being an arrogant prince you have an arrogant vampire, instead of vengeful witch we have a vengeful goddess,” she adds.
Due to the choices that Jopling consciously made to avoid the stereotypical vampire/supernatural aesthetic, the show had a potent emotional appeal. It’s ironic considering that most vampire stories, regardless of emotional depth, are highly sexualized – and Mýthos most definitely is not.
There are no over the top effects either. When people ask if there will be fangs, the answer is a resounding no. “You lisp when you have fangs, can you imagine a bunch of lisping vampires?” I must admit the idea is quite comic.
A rock opera, unlike rock musical, has little to no dialogue – and is pretty much sung the entire way through. “People tend to be a little afraid of doing that,” says Jopling, “I think that a lot of producers underestimate the intelligence of their listener and don’t think they can follow.” But there are traditional opera fans all over the world, and while they may not be the audience for this genre, there are bound to be others who will be.
She started the project as a writing exercise in late February 2011; she wanted to write a book for the Bat Out Of Hell Musical. She came up with a plot, however later learned that creator Jim Steinman was a little protective of his work following a poor adaptation of his European show Tanz Der Vampire for Broadway.
So she decided to steer clear of his songs, and wrote her own. A few months and four composers later, with lyrics to 22 songs under her belt, she found David Velarde, a friend of a friend, to put her words to music.
Velarde lives in New York so they had to use phone and Internet in order to work together. “I called him and left a message and basically said I’ve written this vampire rock opera, I need a composer, would you be interested?” says Jopling, “And he called back and said sure!” The next day he gave her the tune for the first song.
He provided most of the melodies remotely; they didn’t actually meet till September 2011, almost a month after they’d started working together. “Either he’d call me up on the phone and sing them to me,” she says, “Or later he worked with audacity program to record things to a click track.” After he composed, they would revise lyrics or melodies where necessary.
Jopling’s passion for such shows growing up contributed toward the musical development of the opera. “When I would be looking at a song, I’d say this needs to be sort of like this song from Les Misérables or this song from Jesus Christ Superstar or this song from Evita,” she says.
They sourced arrangers from across the continent (including Jopling’s husband, who arranged 20 of the 26 songs), and by June, only eight months after they had started writing, they had demos for each song in the opera. This is pretty fast considering neither of them have ever written a musical before.
Jopling told me the story of a big-time producer acquaintance that commented on the routine beginners’ mistakes that she and Velarde were making. When told they had only met last year, they had never worked together, and that she had never done a musical before, he said, “Actually strike all that it’s fantastic!”
They had huge response to the call for auditions, and some extremely talented people. This too, had a long-distance component: Velarde was Skyped in via iPad. “It was very funny because he’ d be watching from our tablet we had set up,” she says, “somebody would finish, and if he really liked the performance he’d say come here, come here, sit down let me see your face.”
Once they had casted the show, the week of the workshop was grueling – five songs per day between Monday and Friday, and a dress rehearsal Saturday before the workshop showcase.
Jopling was thankful for everyone’s enthusiasm, but particularly that of the ensemble. Although they had the budget to pay the lead actors, they couldn’t afford to pay the rest of the cast.
The workshop has been a great experience because although the demo recordings were strong, it was a different experience to have people act across from each other. “There are a lot of duets in the show,” she says, “In the finale there’s a lot of times where five people kind of sing different melodies at the same time,” she says
“They came in yesterday and they knew their music really well, and the minute they sang it just added this whole other dimension to everything,” she says. “We’re so lucky that so many of these people have been generous with their time, and availability for this project. “
What started out as a writing exercise less than a year and a half ago, evolved into an incredibly entertaining performance – the music was catchy, and the cast boasted some impressive vocal talent. The actors had their music almost fully memorized, and were able to engage effectively with one another on stage.
Jopling describes this development as organic. “I didn’t have the pressure of trying to mount it anywhere or anything like that,” she says. “It was a very laidback process and then the to and fro between the collaborative team was absolutely amazing.” It will be exciting to see where Mýthos: The Crimson Chorus can go from here.