Birds in the Moon explores themes of freedom, migration and borders, and when the pandemic suddenly restricted all movement, the opera’s message became even more potent.
Now a year and a half after the lights went out at the Broad Stage this traveling, whimsical, outdoor opera will triumphantly mark the theater’s return of live performances. Staged in a parking lot in Downtown Santa Monica, Birds in the Moon will be performed in a decked out shipping container with an LED screen, light and sound system, and a rooftop performance space.
The opera was composed by Mark Grey and Júlia Canosa i Serra and tells a fantastical story inspired by a 17th century theory that birds would migrate to the moon for winter.
It features Maria Elena Altany as the Bird Mother, who encounters Austin Spangler as the Ringmaster and the pair strive to escape the perils of the desert believing the moon is the answer to their plight. The story is told with music from the San Francisco-based Friction string quartet alongside soundscapes and video projections.
Following many months without live performances, the open air opera provides an experience for viewers and performers that is both invigorating and cathartic.
“After a year and a half of being at home to stand up there in the wind and sun and sing to the sky is unbelievably exhilarating,” said Altany.
The show ran in New York City this spring in a pop-up style where audiences were not altered beforehand to avoid crowds forming. The Santa Monica show will mark the West Coast premiere of Birds in the Moon and the first time the performers will be in front of a ticketed audience.
“The piece is so much about drought, water and migration that to be able to see the ocean from the stage is going to be such a beautiful juxtaposition,” said Altany.
Set Designer Chad Owens designed the portable theater with the idea that each location could become an active part of the setting in mind. Exposed to the elements and with minimalist props, the ‘magical box’ is open to the possibilities of nature and chance.
During one performance Owens recounts that a huge night heron circled around the crowd, was then dive bombed by a hawk, settled directly by the theater and proceeded to watch the rest of the show.
“It was this incredible visitation of bird figures that came in and almost stole the show,” said Owens. “There’s that aspect of magic, which is that when you’re outside in the elements, things can happen that you don’t have control over.”
The show itself is woven with elements of magical realism. It was written by composers Mark Grey and Júlia Canosa i Serra, who are known for their evening length opera Frankenstein.
The two wanted to develop a small ensemble opera that touched on a social and political subject. When they were initially writing the story the Syrian refugee crisis was featured heavily in the news and the pair was thinking about migration, trafficking and the situation at the US-Mexico border.
The show explores these themes using a mythical lens to represent the timeless struggles individuals weather in journeying towards a better life.
Altana, who plays the brave self-sacrificing Bird mother doing everything possible to protect her children’s future, always keeps the real stories of migrants in mind while performing.
“As a mother myself, the idea of being separated from your child and not knowing when you’re going to get them back is unimaginable,” said Altany. “This show is a myth and it is a universal story, but it’s also happening right here in California at our borders, beyond our borders, within our cities and in spaces that are right next to us but we don’t realize. That is the most meaningful part of our show to me.”
Birds in the Moon will be performed at Santa Monica’s Lot 27 at 7 p.m. on Sept. 1 through 4. Tickets can be purchased at www.thebroadstage.org.