At Desert Crossroads, Stage And Film Collide In An Opera Miniseries

Isabel Leonard sings Cass in ‘desert in,’ an online opera of overlapping love stories. Ellen Reid is the principal composer of the co-production of Boston Lyric Opera and Long Beach Opera, directed by James Darrah. (Photos: Michael Elias Thomas)

DIGITAL REVIEW — Desert in Netflixes the opera experience. The recently released video, commissioned by the Boston Lyric Opera and realized by a prominent team of composers, writers, and stage pros, crashes into the border between stage and screen.

In a remote motel, visitors can be reunited with their dead lovers.

The eight-part miniseries debuted June 3 on the BLO’s streaming service, Filmed in Palm Springs, Calif., and released in two episodes per week, desert in is a co-production of the BLO and Long Beach Opera. Series creators include composer Ellen Reid, director James Darrah, and co-librettist christopher oscar peña. They joined forces with Academy Award–winners, Grammy winners, MacArthur fellows, Pulitzer Prize–winners — some of the most active and interesting artists working today.

The story (without spoilers): In a remote motel, visitors can be reunited with their dead lovers — with few happy endings. The process, ruled by the motel’s owner, Cass (mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, an inspired casting not only for the voice, but also for her dominant film presence), reunites the lovers but invites disturbing revelations as well.

[Read more stories by Keith Powers here]

Reid, whose opera p r i s m won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for music as well as that year’s Award for Best New Opera from the Music Critics Association of North America, serves as principal composer. Vijay Iyer, Nathalie Joachim, Emma O’Halloran, Nico Muhly, Wang Lu, Michael Abels, and Shelley Washington contribute to individual episodes. An equally accomplished team of writers, led by peña (Jane the Virgin), includes Joy Kecken (The Wire), Zackary Drucker (HBO’s The Lady and the Dale), and Roxie Perkins (Reid’s librettist on p r i s m).

As Cass’ wife Sunny, soprano Talise Trevigne brings an anguished complexity to the narrative of ‘desert in.’

Three-time Grammy winner Leonard leads the onscreen vocal cast. She’s joined by soprano Talise Trevigne, whose realizations form a core thread of the narrative. Justin Vivian Bond — a cabaret chanteuse with husky, easygoing Sprechstimme style — invades the story, both as the Lounge Singer and in several offbeat infomercials that ironically market the inn. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines leads an exceptional cast of off-screen vocalists, which also includes tenors Alan Pingarrón and Jesus Garcia and baritone Edward Nelson.

How this happens — and how it began, especially Cass’ mysterious history with her wife Sunny, sung and played with anguished complexity by Trevigne — urges the narrative forward.

Actors with speaking parts include Raviv Ullman, Anthony Michael Lopez, and Alexander Flores. Lighting (Pablo Santiago), special effects (production design by Yuki Izumihara), and costuming (Molly Irelan) play a major role in the effectiveness of desert in. Darrah, artistic director of Long Beach Opera, directs five of the episodes.

Captivating heartthrob role: Actor Raviv Ullman plays Ion.

Whoever gets credit for integrating all this talent deserves it.

The eight episodes are brief — 10 to 20 minutes. Overlapping love stories, pivoting mainly around Ion (Ullman onscreen, in a captivating heartthrob role, voiced by Nelson), dominate the episodes. Video effects — overlapping moments, recurring scenes with slight alterations, flashbacks and alternate realities — add layers to the narrative.

Ion comes to the Desert Inn (the creators use both “in” and “Inn” for intentional ambiguity) to find his dead soulmate Rufus (Flores onscreen, sung off-screen with hysterical effectiveness by Pingarrón). As Ion comprehends the horror of their own reunion, he unearths many of the motel’s secrets. Cass lies at the heart of the otherworldly trysts, molding memories and reality. Her Desert Inn resembles a halfway station between the living and the dead. Nobody is happy.

The timing of the release — two episodes per week for a month — succeeds and fails. Shorter than a sit-com, individual episodes of desert in barely make a mouthful. And the audience was hardly “left hanging” at the conclusion of each episode — some episodes just seemed to end.

But taken as a whole, in a binge-viewing frenzy, desert in easily weaves a compelling story that slowly takes a shape but never entirely reveals itself. The narrative ineluctably draws viewers down a mysterious, heart-rending path.

Justin Vivian Bond performs as the Lounge Singer with husky, easygoing style.

Much of it succeeds because of polished video techniques — repeated scenes with slight alterations, or mirroring and blending scenes and characters. Showing the same scene unfolding with different conclusions — once a seduction, another time a confrontation, yet again as a dismissal — brought layered nuance to the story.

The music — the real editing miracle — survives its multiple creators and achieves the genuine appeal of a compelling and appropriate film score. Reid wrote the series’ theme, and her effective musical branding serves as a linchpin amid the swirl of cryptic revelations.

Characters come to life through singing roles, through speaking roles, and through subconsciously voiced roles. This often gets needlessly complicated — characters interacting silently onscreen, with singing or speaking from another source. Without subtitles, these scenes are impossible to follow.

Everyone in the cast is gorgeous and fun to observe. But too much of the acting devolves into slow-mo emoting, diminishing the rapid narrative shifts.

The excessive credits must be noted — five minutes long (at least), when the episodes themselves run less than 20 minutes. Artists must be acknowledged, granted. Viewers could freely ignore the credits, of course. And everyone is happy that the Boston Lyric Opera and the Long Beach Opera have generous, intelligent, and handsome board members, advisers, and corporate supporters. But there is no need to see all of their names after every single episode.

The partnership between the BLO and has great potential as companies calculate how to maintain their newfound online audiences while returning to the stage. One can imagine desert in performed onstage without too many modifications, apart from the filmic aspects. And someday, when the category of COVID-era artistic collaborations gets evaluated, desert in is bound to represent one of the most ambitious and successful.

Tickets for desert in start at $5 per episode. Episodes remain available for at least six months. Digital subscriptions to include all of the BLO’s season content, including last year’s Fall of the House of Usher, and start at $50. is available at the website and through apps on Apple, Google, Amazon, and Roku.