Short-form streaming opera isn’t the novelty that contemporary creatives want us to suppose it is, but there’s no denying it has burgeoned since the world went into pandemic lockdown last year. A seldom-acknowledged trouble with the bite-size wonders we’ve been seeing is that they don’t accrue the oomph to leave a lasting impression. Well, Desert In has a solution for that! Call it the Darrah variant—Darrah as in James Darrah, the artistic director of Long Beach Opera, in whose perfervid imagination opera and the movies swirl like coffee and Irish whiskey, once blended never to separate.
Forged in the sort of Writers Room crucible that gave rise to The Sopranos, The Simpsons, and Six Feet Under, Darrah’s latest weaves its spell over eight 10-to-20-minute episodes. Though each is credited to its own glitteringly credentialed librettist-composer team, the rules of the game came down from Darrah along with the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Reid and the lead writer Christopher Oscar Peña. Trending names in the mix (among the composers, Vijay Iyer and Nico Muhly) have had to check their egos at the door.
At one level, we’re talking A Tale of Two Circes. Meet Sunny and Cass, the same-sex pair in charge of their own sensualist’s oasis deep in the region of California where you’ll find Joshua Tree and the Salton Sea, though more pertinent points of reference would be Twin Peaks, Chinatown, and No Exit.
At another level, this is the chronicle of two honeymooning Adonises, who pull into the motor court bearing more emotional baggage than initially appears. As lives crisscross, time warps and fate plays tricks. Smoldering lovers exchange hard stares, not exclusively with each other. Betrayal runs rampant. The dead awaken. And what gives with those photographs developing in the darkroom?
Where The Magic Flute has trials by fire and water, the Desert Inn of Desert In has a fire pit and a swimming pool, each visited frequently, seldom without some touch of evil. A word to the wise: Get out!
Speaking of Get Out, the composer for the series finale is Michael Abels, who produced and scored Jordan Peele’s Oscar-crowned horror flick. His contribution here accounts for two of the series’s most memorable moments: a brief noir explosion that epitomizes the genre without descending into the generic, and a catchy bossa nova, into which the Lounge Singer of Justin Vivian Bond drops a note of alchemical mischief.
A doctoral thesis on the casting might be in order. As the two Circes, Isabel Leonard and Talise Trevigne deliver everything their roles require: faces, voices, cinematic presence. But for the honeymooners, Darrah fields a quartet. Onscreen, we see Alexander Flores and Raviv Ullman (formerly Ricky Ullman, of the Disney Channel’s Phil of the Future); on the soundtrack, we hear the tenor Jesus Garcia, two decades ago the winner of a Tony for Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème, and the baritone Edward Nelson, winner of the 2020 Glyndebourne Cup, no paltry honor for a singing actor.
Same division of labor in the part of a distinguished older gentleman, acted by Ricco Ross but voiced by the eloquent baritone of Davóne Tines. Why’s that? Smacks of lookism and ageism to me. And shouldn’t those be no-no’s in cutting-edge opera’s brave new world? Or is something deeper going on?
Desert In is available for streaming on the Boston Lyric Opera Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii