Though stages still feel deserted, the pandemic inspired an extraordinary boom for videographers with a fondness for the classical arts. Among these is Stephen Bell, UX/UI Designer, videographer, tenor, and founder of Coffeeshop Creative. Bell and his team have been uniquely busy putting opera on the screen, taking on notoriously Canadian digital operatic projects like Messiah/Complex, the internationally-acclaimed project out of Against the Grain Theatre, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. We asked Bell about his remarkable year, and what he’s learned about fusing art forms with film:
How did your 2020 compare to a “normal” year with Coffeeshop Creative?
“Compared to past years, 2020 was a huge year of growth for Coffeeshop Creative and its team, and our biggest year to date. As the world moved quickly towards digital content, we put our creative skills to the test and worked extensively in feature/music and promotional video as well as Web and UX Design. Coffeeshop has always been focused on telling clear/modern digital stories, and 2020 really put our skills to the test. We wanted to work as closely as possible to help share and promote local business and the arts as best we could. Prior to 2020, our team utilized the work-from-home scenario in our UI/UX design projects as well as video editing, so we continued to run with that setup. However instead of meeting over coffee with our clients at cafes around Toronto, we met with coffee over Zoom and Google Hangouts.”
What are some opera-related projects that came your way as a direct result of the pandemic closures?
“We have been fortunate to work on some incredible projects during the lockdown! Firstly the Messiah/Complex. Thank you again to Joel Ivany and the Against the Grain Theatre team for selecting us to shoot (the Ontario Units) and edit this incredible and powerful work! To work and collaborate with videographers across Canada and showcase the incredible work by the many soloists choirs, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and directors, was an honour. We had created music videos in the past, but this was our first full feature film. The response was overwhelming and we were thrilled to help bring AtG & TSO’s vision to the screen!
“In the fall of 2020, we shot and edited Against the Grain Theatre’s web series pilot for A Little Too Cozy. This was a blast! What great concept to give Mozart’s classic opera a modern twist complete with a reality dating show theme. It was awesome to see how singers could pivot to acting roles on screen, and they were fantastic. Opera singers are actors, and seeing them shine in A Little Too Cozy was such a cool experience. Definitely check out AtG Theatre’s YouTube channel!
“Coffeeshop also had the joy of working with Domoney Artists to create their exciting video series of Opera Breaks. Big shout out to Kathy Domoney and her artists for the beautiful work they did recording in studio and then on location around Toronto. Such great memories from recording Ernesto Ramírez‘s “E lucevan le stelle” outside the Old Don Jail and Jennifer Taverner’s “Quando m’en vo” in Graffiti Alley. Looking forward to future Opera Breaks!
“On the web front we launched one of our biggest website commissions for the The Association for Opera in Canada‘s redesign, which included the chance to collaborate on these designs with one of Toronto’s leading design studios, Sovereign State. Excited for the awesome work the team is doing! We also had the pleasure of redesigning one of Toronto’s leading opera reviewer’s website, Opera Going Toronto (Ian Ritchie).
“In the spring we also had a pleasure of working with the Young Artists of Manitoba Opera in both creating some aria video recordings as well as some online masterclasses discussing tricks and tips for online media presence and YouTube promotional ideas.
“It was a busy year!”
How have you observed individual singers’ professional decisions during these last 14 months? How has their relationships with technology and video production changed?
“I have long believed that a strong artist portfolio is determined, in part, by a strong online and video presence. Now more than ever singers need to showcase their talents online as they might not be able to travel just yet for auditions or in-person engagements: Youtube/Instagram/Tik Tok/Facebook, etc. It has been awesome to see how many singers have adapted to creating their own videos or channels showcasing their talents. From mastering live streams, Zoom collaborations to self-recorded audition tapes, its exciting to see the level of creativity. Moving forward, when things slowly begin to open, I think singers will still need to maintain a strong online portfolio showcase.”
What do you consider to be the difference between a mediocre and an excellent fusion of classical music/opera and screen media?
“I think the best thing singers can do to present themselves in the best way online, is to have two things: good lighting and good audio. Regardless if your camera can shoot in 6k or 720p, lighting and audio are key to engaging the viewer. I share a YouTube channel with another fellow singer, Janaka Welihinda (Stephen and Janaka) which is focused on camera tips/reviews and editing tutorials, and the biggest thing we have discovered in our channel’s growth is consistent high quality lighting and sound. Investing in a good microphone and lighting setup will really add another dimension to your video, and can differentiate between mediocre and excellent!”
If/when live opera becomes normal again, what do you hope producers will have taken away from this sudden shift to opera on the screen?
“I hope in the future, opera companies and producers will see the importance of digital production in addition to their live performance. Imagine when a company announces its upcoming season, that is also mentions its commissioning a film work in addition to its regular live lineup. I don’t just mean a livestream or taped show, but rather a feature work with the artists – creating a cinematic film of one of the productions. For example setting up a Marriage of Figaro in a modern film environment either sung or spoken, or even both! Engage the singers to work as the feature actors. This has the ability to engage far beyond the subscription and local artistic community, but also abroad. Messiah/Complex had almost 200k views on Against the Grain Theatre’s YouTube platform, with viewers and supporters from around the world engaging with its beautiful production! Think of the possible collaborations between opera and film companies across Canada and the engagement that might have abroad, if each opera company created just one featured film style production per year.”
Readers, what opera on the screen have you enjoyed most, so far? What operas are you eager to see adapted for film? Let us know in the comments, or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.