Fri., November 8, 2013 6:00pm (EST)

How to Make an Opera in 24 Hours
By Sarah Zaslaw
Updated: 8 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
William Green (Center) sings the part of the Fly King. He’s a substantial guy with a beard and sparkly blue wings. He’s volunteering his time out of love for the art. “I love new music, so this was the newest music you could possibly get,” he explains. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Roffman for The Atlanta Opera)
William Green (Center) sings the part of the Fly King. He’s a substantial guy with a beard and sparkly blue wings. He’s volunteering his time out of love for the art. “I love new music, so this was the newest music you could possibly get,” he explains. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Roffman for The Atlanta Opera)
A blank page, and one day to turn it into an opera.

That’s what the Atlanta Opera’s 24-Hour Opera Project is all about: artistry under pressure.

Composers are randomly paired with lyricists, then toil overnight to write shows that will hit the stage the next day on just a few hours’ rehearsal.

The marathon event took place last weekend, and we followed one team through the challenge.

A paper bag rips open to reveal a prop: a plastic fly. It goes to Atlanta wordsmith Vynnie Meli. She has landed on a team with composer Ronnie Reshef, a graduate student from New York. They will write their opera about these three props: a crown, a book and, of course, a fly.

At 6 p.m. on Friday, the four new teams scatter to separate rooms in First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, and Vynnie and Ronnie begin brainstorming.

“This is the fly king and he’s reading a book on how to do something else or become something else,” Vynnie suggests.

They’re aiming for an opera 7 to 10 minutes long, for three singers and a pianist. But Ronnie can’t write much music untill Vynnie produces lyrics.

“I feel a lot of pressure right now,” Vynnie says. “They need to start composing. I don’t have any words. So I need to really hurry up, especially early in the night.”

By 8:30, Vynnie has sketched the first of two scenes. “ ‘This here book is just the thing for a bored fly king,’ ” she reads. “And then he opens the book and reads, ‘Becoming a Human Being,’ or something, and then, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’”

The sketch isn’t much, but it’s a start. Ronnie heads to the piano to compose.

She works through the wee hours of night, and by Saturday morning the opera takes shape. It’s about a bored fly king who transforms into a man to find love—but there’s a catch. He has to sing, “I have the love of a woman, and the lifespan of a fly.”

They have their title: The Lifespan of a Fly.

At 6 a.m., Ronnie says she’s spent.

“Twelve hours nonstop writing? I can’t believe that this is what I just did. There are so many details that I just rushed. I mean, rushed is an understatement.”

All four teams turn in their scores.

As the composers and librettists crawl off to collapse, the singers, pianists and directors arrive to rehearse, and with Mira Hirsch as stage director, the work starts to come alive.

William Green sings the part of the Fly King. He’s a substantial guy with a beard and sparkly blue wings. He’s volunteering his time out of love for the art. “I love new music, so this was the newest music you could possibly get,” he explains.

After rehearsing through the morning and afternoon, it’s finally showtime at the 14th Street Playhouse.

Everyone simply wears black, and scenery is limited to the odd table or chair. In the audience sit the judges who will pick the winning act.

One by one, the shows go on, and the three singers premiere the story of the fly king.

After all the performances, the judges deliberate and name our team the winners. They accept the honor with tired smiles. Their 24-hour opera is fresh, funny, and most importantly, finished.