Improvised Opera in a Black Box Theatre? Yep.

Opera with a cause in a black box, intimate NoHo theatre. It can be done, by Operaworks.

Well, here’s something you don’t see everyday, even in the creative NoHo Arts District: An opera with music improvised by the cast. But that’s what you’ll encounter at “The Discord Altar.” This is the first in a series of proposed productions from OperaWorks’ ASAP, (Arts for Social Awareness Project), an ambitious undertaking seeking to raise consciousness regarding social issues. Operaworks’  “The Discord Altar,” developed and produced in association with Fugitive Kind Theater,  will run for four weekends in North Hollywood’s intimate Secret Rose Theatre. The cast of seven classically trained singing-actors, a pianist, and a fusion sound sculpture artist will present 12 one-hour performances that are fully staged and costumed with the musical score newly improvised each night. At the conclusion of each one-hour performance will be a short talkback session with different homeless shelter representatives and advocates from around the Los Angeles area.

The Discord Opera
L-R: Babatunde Akinboboye, Annie Sherman, Anjelica McRae, Alina Roitstein, Julia Aks, Vincent Robles

The Discord Altar – full show synopsis
WHEN: April 10 – May 3 
WHERE: Secret Rose Theatre – 11246 Magnolia Blvd. NoHo Arts District

OperaWorks founder and artistict director Ann Baltz took the time to answer some questions about the show and how their opera can reach a new audience touching upon social matters.



This OperaWorks’ ASAP show touches on the homeless. How did you choose this topic?

I regularly support several homeless shelters. The thought of someone living on the streets or in their car in the world’s richest country is incomprehensible to me. I chose this topic because it is something that every person is aware of and I wanted to dispel some of the myths about it. Any one of us could lose our job, health, or money and end up without a home. In today’s social media culture it is easy to read an online article about homelessness, click “Like”, and feel that we have done our part. I wanted to put a human face on the issue through live music/theater in intimate spaces.

What makes this different than a traditional opera?

In traditional opera the music for the singers and the orchestra is written down by a composer so that everyone knows what to sing or play. In “The Discord Altar,” the script has been written but the music is completely improvised by the singers and instrumentalists in each performance. In this way, no two performances are alike. The story has been written and the general shape of the opera is there, but the performers all have the flexibility to be truly “in the moment” and react in ways they never could when the music has been previously composed.

This production also differs in that it addresses a specific socially relevant topic. And there will be post-performance talkbacks with representatives from different homeless shelters. This will give audiences an opportunity to learn more from those who are directly involved with the homeless in Los Angeles. This is our way of using Art to increase awareness and consciousness about the homeless on a visceral level.

L-R: Alina Roitstein (Emily), Anjelica McRae (Vanelda)

Can an opera be done in an intimate theatre?

I know it’s a bit odd to think of big operatic voices in an intimate space. The truth is that the acoustics in small playhouses tend to be acoustically dry so, while these singers have big voices, their voices are “present” but not overwhelming.

I wanted to produce this opera in an intimate space to enhance the immediacy of the characters’ lives, those who are living, or who used to live, on the streets. Our director and designers have created a world in the Secret Rose Theatre that feels very much like the warehouse where the opera takes place. It’s a very different experience in this space than it would be at, say, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where you might be 100’s of feet away from the stage. In this setting, where the audience is 8-15 feet away from the performers, the actual vibrations from the singing, the ability to see facial expressions, the close proximity to the characters’ world are inescapable, and the performances can be riveting.

L-R:  Julia Aks (Richie), Annie Sherman (Lena)

How can this opera appeal to a non-opera audience?

I’m so glad you asked this. We struggled with how to categorize this piece. I know some people see the word “opera” or especially “contemporary opera” and run the other way. I used to be one of those people, so I am particularly sensitive to creating live music/theater pieces in which the music is a powerful expressive tool that contributes to the whole experience.

Our cast consists of not only terrific opera singers, but most of them also sing other kinds of music as well – jazz, gospel, musical-theater – so we are finding in creating this piece that there is a variety of musical styles coming out in the opera. There is also spoken dialogue and, because the musical elements are improvised, sometimes the singer-actors will speak lines, and the next time sing them, depending on the moment. It’s a fascinating process. Our percussionist, Ray Salas, is someone whose sounds you will not find in a traditional opera! He creates his own instruments from found objects, and the mesmerizing soundscapes he creates in performance support the drama so beautifully.

It is my hope that “The Discord Altar” will leave our audiences with two things: (1) a new insight into the urgent problem of homelessness and (2) a live theater experience that they will not forget.

What’s coming up next for OperaWorks’ ASAP?

Oh, there are so many other topics on our list for future projects: aging in our society, poverty, immigration, the effects of war, foster care. Development of each new work will involve collaborative creative teams from OperaWorks and other like-minded arts organizations that are interested in advocacy theater and have demonstrated a passion for making a difference in society. We partnered with Fugitive Kind Theater company for this project, which has been amazing. I am looking forward to more collaborations with them.

We are in discussions now about the next project that will probably launch late this Fall. I would love to do two of these projects each year, and remount them in other cities. We have had a lot of individual donor support for this project, raising about 30% of our costs. As with any non-profit arts organization, the support of our donors makes a huge difference in our ability to create and sustain new projects.

In the meantime, this is our 29th year of running two opera training residency programs during the summers, both of which conclude with full semi-improvised productions in an intimate theater on the campus of California State University-Northridge. The productions are wildly inventive and entertaining! Information:


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