“Dear Beyoncé,” Shara Nova sings dotingly above the excited clattering of an antique typewriter. “Do you ever think that you’re like everybody else? Just another human, fartin’ around this damned earth?”
Queen Bey makes no reply.
Regal, royal, and ridiculously talented, Beyoncé is just one of several modern pop gods called upon in Nova’s contemporary Baroque chamber opera, You Us We All. The album-length opera is a mixed-up, mashed-up court masque about five allegorical characters searching for meaning in the modern age, filled with corny fan letters and cornetto solos, broken hearts and Baroque instruments.
It’s a work of 21st-century musical theater written for 17th-century instruments—an ornate, Baroque-style pageant of life and death with music by Nova, libretto by Andrew Ondrejcak, costumes by Zane Pihlstrom, and choreography by Seth Stewart Williams.
Shara Nova (previously known as Shara Worden) is one of those musicians who is notoriously impossible to pin down. She’s an artist in every sense of the word—a composer, a singer-songwriter, a mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and a musical chameleon.
Perhaps best known as the frontwoman her own avant-garde rock band, My Brightest Diamond, she has also collaborated with composers and artists as diverse as the Decemberists, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sufjan Stevens, Colin Stetson, David Byrne, and many more. For Nova, writing and starring in her own Baroque chamber opera was simply the next logical step in a career of beautifully unusual musical endeavors.
You Us We All began with a commission from the Belgian ensemble Baroque Orchestration X (B.O.X.), a collective that is committed to creating new music on old instruments. Inspired by their wide range of rare period instruments, Nova began working with writer, director, and production designer Andrew Ondrejcak to craft a new theatrical work that would combine the lavish nobility and grace of the Baroque era with the boldness and artistic experimentation of the 21st century.
The opera premiered last year with performances in Belgium, Germany, Amsterdam, and New York. And though no performances made it over to the West Coast (yet!), we can still live vicariously through the original cast recording, starring Nova herself with her hand-picked skeleton cast of curious characters.
The opera takes its structural form from the Baroque masque—a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in 16th and 17th-century Europe and involved extravagant music, costumes, sets, and dances. Masques typically featured a series of tableaus in lieu of a standard plot, and opted for allegorical characters to represent abstract virtues such as Beauty, Strength, or Justice.
At its core, You Us We All adheres to this basic structure of pomp and circumstance—but what begins as lighthearted courtly entertainment quickly turns into something much darker: a radical look inward at how we define our culture and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves.
Nova’s warm, lustrous vocals sparkle in the role of Hope, along with acclaimed New York-vocalist Helga Davis as Virtue, baritone Martin Gerke as Love, performance artist Carlos Soto as Time, and countertenor Bernhard Landauer as Death. The 10-piece B.O.X. collective provides a backdrop of clean, courtly, polite, and precise accompaniment reminiscent of a Baroque dance suite—but with some more contemporary percussion thrown in for a 21st-century edge.
The opera tells a tale of Love, Virtue, Hope, and Death—four dreadfully superficial characters who define themselves solely through their fabulous costumes, ornamented melodies, and material possessions. Surrounded by the glitter and glamour of riches and wealth, they begin to reflect on the meaning of their lives in the modern world only as Time strips away their carefully-crafted layers of pomp and artifice.
The opera unfolds through a number of modern-day arias and recitatives: Death falls for Love, Virtue and Hope head out to a strip club, Time drinks away his sorrows—you know, the usual operatic drama.
But it’s all tied together will introspective little letters Hope writes to the pop divinities, almost like philosophical prayers to the gods above. In her own little 21st-century way, Hope’s fan letters harken back to the Baroque tradition, when philosophers sought to reconcile the existence of life and God through their writings.
It just serves as a reminder that although we’re three centuries past Baroque music and philosophical musings, we are still just as lost as ever. But at least we’re not alone—the opera reminds us that you, us, we all still have each other. And Nova’s prominent role reminds us that above all, we still have Hope.
“Dear Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, is it true that you’re split from one single chromosome?” she sings sweetly above the antique typewriter. “Are we not us each all split from one single chromosome, and spend our lives trying to put the pieces back together?”