The show must go on: MOT will stream kids' opera May 22

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

They'd been rehearsing the opera since January, and were to perform April 25 on the Fisher Theatre stage.

But then Covid-19 blew those plans out of the water, leaving members of Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus bereft and bewildered.

"I was very disappointed," said Berkley High School sophomore Grace Watson, who plays the lead character Amy in "The Very Last Green Thing." (Click here to download part of a pre-shutdown rehearsal.)

"I remember crying for a week," she said. "I mean, it’s my last year with the chorus, and you work your butt off with a bunch of talented people. It was really disappointing."

Grace Watson (center) stars as Amy in the Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus production of "The Very Last Green Thing." Cast members had to record all their songs on videotape for a Zoom-like livestream May 22.

But in a triumph of ingenuity and online magic, "The Very Last Green Thing" will take place after all in a virtual, Zoom-like performance that will stream on the MOT Facebook page at 11 a.m. May 22.

On hearing the plans for an online performance, in which all 44 cast members would videotape their scenes at home, Molly Levin -- who plays the other lead, a silver-suited android -- had grave doubts.

"I was skeptical at first," said the 14-year-old who attends the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills. "But then they showed us a little edited-together part, and it was so cool. And that kind of gave me the energy to keep going."

Molly Levin in costume as the futuristic Android in Michigan Opera Theatre's online production of "The Very Last Green Thing," which will stream May 22.

And energy was necessary. Like the rest of the cast, Levin had to videotape her part from the 30-minute opera in short, three-minute clips, and then email them in to MOT.

She figures the project probably consumed four hours a week for about a month, between putting on silver make-up, getting into costume, warming up her voice and recording and re-recording her soprano part.

For many, the exercise turned into a family-lockdown project.

Watson wangled help from her younger sister Julia, who held the camera throughout. "She was very helpful," Grace said, "in keeping me in the frame the whole time."

Berkeley High School sophomore Grace Watson plays Amy in "The Very Last Green Thing," which will stream on MOT's Facebook page May 22.

Levin tried balancing the phone on a pile of books, but eventually broke down and got a tripod.

Even on a virtual stage, everything still was tightly choreographed - particularly in terms of which direction a character was facing. In the final edit, the boxes Amy and the android inhabit will bump up against one another when a scene requires, creating the illusion of interaction.

"There were a lot of re-do's" in the videotaping, Watson said. "But I got it done and I’m very excited about that."

"The Very Last Green Thing," which in this case has been edited down to just 30 minutes, takes place in 2492, a dystopian future where plants have vanished from the earth -- until Amy discovers one in a time capsule.

At first Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order seemed to render the opera moot, says Suzanne Mallare Acton, who heads up the Children's Chorus program. But after seeing some online choir performances, she began to wonder.

"I called our stage director Sarah Hawkins Rusk," she said, and Dianna Hochella, the conductor, and asked, ‘What would you guys think about making this into a virtual opera?’ They said, 'Well, alright. Let’s do a show.'"

The job of stitching all the videotaped, Brady-bunch boxes together, and arranging them in a virtual landscape to approximate the feel of a performance, fell to producer Eric Longs, who ordinarily films performances for the MOT archives.

Molly Levin stars in the Michigan Opera Theatre children's opera, "The Very Last Green Thing," playing an Android teacher four centuries in the future. It will stream May 22 on the MOT Facebook page.

Just how difficult was finagling all this?

"Terribly," said Longs with a laugh, noting that the largest scene has 144 separate videoclips in it. "It's been a challenge."

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'The Very Last Green Thing'

Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus

11 a.m. May 22 - streaming on the MOT Facebook page