What is the story? Making a documentary about singers.
When we started planning UNSUNG, the path seemed clear: We must capture this moment in time when all the opera houses are closed, and singers have lost mountains of work. We can frame the whole film around our own production of La Traviata that was cancelled, and then reimagined as a documentary. It sounded a bit meta, but we were game.
Then I began to interview our cast members, to see where they were at. I was sure they would tell me how hard the career insecurity was. They are all used to it, yes, but this time is different. I was prepared to hear stories of shock, of desperation, and for the subject of "Who am I without my career?" to be at the forefront of minds. Whilst I did hear thoughts that were along these lines, I heard a lot more that I was not quite prepared for.
The story of UNSUNG is one of singers who have been silenced, but for some that story began before COVID. For some, it has been the story of their lives since the industry forced them out, one way or another. Sometimes the exclusion was by choice, and other times is was not. Never was the exclusion due to poor vocal health, or a lack of artistic excelllence. Should this be a film about ageism? About misogyny in the opera industry? About racism?
When COVID hit, some members of the cast were on a roll. They had already clambered over hurdles. They had waited patiently, and were finally being rewarded for their perseverance and then, in an instant, that momentum was stopped dead. This made me want to include even more context: career momentum, the waiting game, the ebbs and flows of success, and the impact of COVID on career trajectories.
Of course, this is not only the "time of COVID". We in the United States are also in the time of revolution, protest, political unrest and upheaval. The effect of this upheaval of our singers, particularly the Black cast members, is very real. This film could act as a platform for them to speak about their journeys as Black singers, and the ways in which our industry needs to evolve into one that represents them.
The interviews are deeply personal. The singers are all in a moment of deep introspection, and it shows. When I saw some of the early footage, I realised that we have never seen this side of singers on film. The fact that they are being interviewed by a singer, one that they know and (hopefully) respect, makes a big difference to the questions that are asked and the answers that are given. As director, my love of singers drives every creative choice I make, and I have asked the cast to speak about things that I personally want to explore. So there is some chance that the film will be (as much of my work has become) a love-letter to singers. But will that have general appeal?
There is a balance to be struck: to create an effective time-capsule that also refers to the past, and makes demands on behalf of the future. To delight in the singer-ness of singers, showing all that they can do on stage (all that you, audience, know and love about them) but also what I love about them.
Who are we without singing? Will you still like us?
Sometimes I zoom out (pardon the pun) of the intricacies of content and think about the miracle of getting this film made: the cooperation and faith it has required from our cast at a time when they are all under severe duress. We are asking collaborators to create their own material, to be vulnerable about their private lives, to find time to practice in the midst of it all, to travel to make our soundtrack recording (La Traviata, our new chamber edition), to make music in the same room as each other, to risk their health.
But COVID has showed us all how much we need to be able to BE who we ARE. We need to make music. The pandemic has amplified all the fragility and all of the strength we feel as singers. It has clarified our purpose. It has also shown up the inflexibility--and therefore vulnerability-- of big institutions. We are now coming to terms with our own power within the artistic landscape. We can still sing. We are still singing. So above all, I hope the movie is about that.