A 14th Century Text Inspires Innovation

This past spring, as the U.S.’s COVID crisis set in and opera shut down, Philadelphia-based composer Peter Hilliard noticed an odd trend on-line: a 14th century novel, “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio, was enjoying a boom in sales. “The Decameron” is set outside a plague-stricken Florence, where a group of young people wait out the Black Death by telling a total of one hundred stories to one another – stories of love and death and sex and violence. Although the book was nearly 700 years old, it was enjoying new relevance. Peter called his writing partner, Chicago-based librettist Matt Boresi. Their chamber opera “The Last American Hammer” had barely met the natural closing date of its second production at Pittsburgh Opera before COVID wracked the industry, and their future projects were postponed indefinitely. Might it be possible, Hilliard wondered, for a consortium of independent opera companies to be built which could quickly commission and produce modern adaptations of selected stories from The Decameron and film them to stream – perhaps using singers quarantined together or filmed separately and edited into a joint tale?

Hilliard and Boresi spoke to Resonance Works’ Maria Sensi Sellner, with whom they’d been working on a postponed comic puppet documentary on Verdi, LOON’s Sarah Lawrence, whose Tosca had likewise just been postponed, and UrbanAria’s Robert Wood, who has built a reputation in the nation’s capital for producing short, contemporary American opera. Willing to give this new idea a shot, and able to quickly speak to their boards and reallocate funds, these impresarios got to work. They reached out to other successful small companies on the scene, and soon the coalition was joined by Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Houston’s Opera in the Heights, NYC based alternative opera company Bare Opera, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, experimental company Chicago Fringe Opera, and the newest company to participate, Minneapolis’s An Opera Theatre.

By mid-summer, the companies had assembled, commissioned composers and librettists, and engaged singers, directors, and designers – new opera was again being made! Each of nine chapters in “Tales from a Safe Distance”, plus a frame to tie it all together, would be one act operas inspired by many of the “novellas” of the Decameron. The Decameron’s stories vary wildly in tone, and so would the chamber operas contained within “Tales” – in tone as well as musical and visual technique – a representation of the breadth of artistry happening across the country.

The framing device would be a “Zoom Happy Hour”, like those so many of us have… enjoyed?… during lockdown. Ten people, each inspired by a character from Boccaccio’s merry band of narrators, would catch up with one another, and share a “real” or fictional account of where their life has taken them during the pandemic.

When celebrated bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni agreed to join the cast, a crucial story element slid into place. Our diverse group of Zoom revellers know one another from one magical night in Florence (the setting of Boccaccio’s work) some time prior. An Italian friend they made there as a loose collection of backpackers, vacationers, and business travellers watching a sunset from a rooftop bar has initiated the call, and the juxtaposition of the freedom of that night with their current restriction unlocks a world of conversation and creativity.

Over the course of our fictional call, the ten members of “The Happy Hour” will tell the stories of their lockdown experiences, and if they find their own lives unworthy of a story – they’ll make something up! From 14th century Italy to 21st century America, sharing experiences and revelling in human contact continues to be the richest way to combat misfortune.