NEW YORK—There is perhaps nothing more painful than the forced separation of two people who are truly in love—no matter how legitimate the reason for that separation. This topical subject is brilliantly handled by On Site Opera, which taps into these feelings with the world premiere of “To My Distant Love.”
Presenting the work in connection with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, On Site Opera is billing it as “the world’s first telephone-based opera experience.” Each performance is presented for an audience of one.
This immersive undertaking presents its story via the Beethoven song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte,” with the song text by Alois Isidor Jeitteles. Beethoven based the cycle on a collection of poems by Jeitteles published in 1815.
Using the premise of separated lovers as the starting point—in fact, the English translation of “An die ferne Geliebte” is “To the Distant Beloved”—the production requires all those who have purchased tickets for a performance to become an integral part of this equation.
At a prearranged time, the performers, either soprano Jennifer Zetlan or baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, telephone the audience member in the persona of an absent romantic love. The beloved is currently separated from the audience member by a great distance.
Zetlan or Diaz-Moresco will then serenade the listener with the six songs that make up the cycle. Ms. Zetlan and Mr. Diaz-Moresco are accompanied in this endeavor by, respectively, pianists David Shimoni and Spencer Myer.
So as to better prepare those participating, each person receiving a call is first provided a bit of background via email. This message gives the recipient an idea of how to respond to specific questions he or she may be asked—questions such as where he or she is right now (that is, a park bench, a chair by the window), a favorite place the two lovers shared, the happiest time they spent together, and so on. While the actual songs are all sung in German, English lyrics are also provided prior to the call for those who want to follow along.
Strongly delivered—I experienced Diaz-Moresco’s performance accompanied by Myer—the entire work is both stirring and lyrical. A common theme that runs throughout is the yearning to be with the one we love, as well as the need to sometimes seek respite from the world and its travails. Indeed, it’s not hard to feel swept away in a torrent of emotion as the power and passion of the songs come through.
At the same time, one can’t help but feel a mournful quality to the music as it conjures up images of the power of the human heart. Specifically, it has the capacity for experiencing the pain and longing caused by separation, but at the same time it’s buoyed by the unyielding certainty that the heartache will eventually pass, and those currently apart will someday be together once more.
On Site Opera has come up with a winning premise here. The current COVID situation has forced theaters to rethink how to present performances that will attract audiences and draw them into the story.
Credit must also go to the performers for managing to keep the songs, music, and the emotions completely fresh, despite the fact they’ve presented these songs numerous times before and are scheduled to do so for many times to come before the production winds up.
The only downside to the entire experience is that, due to the way the work is structured, and unless one is fluent in German, it is sometimes had to tell where one specific song ends and the next begins.
Also, the verbal interplay between the performer and the listener does not take place after every song. Director Eric Einhorn, as well as playwright Monet Hurst-Mendoza, who provides additional English dialogue for the piece, might want to look at this issue before future iterations of this presentation.
Both grandly sweeping and intensely personal, “To My Distant Love” taps into the universal pain of separation, and the need we all have to be with the one we love. All in all, it makes for quite an impressive undertaking.
‘To My Distant Love’
Presented by On Site Opera
Running Time: 20 minutes
Closes: Aug. 23
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.