A New Opera Addresses Sexual Harassment in Silicon Valley

“[Opera] can take you to this really emotional place, especially since it’s elevated by the music.”

Opera is rarely seen as fresh and contemporary. Fair enough—the operatic canon hasn't really been updated in the past 100 years, and the racism of Madame Butterfly and sexism of Cosi fan tutte don't usually sit well with younger audiences.

But librettist Amy Punt believes the form has untapped potential.

"I would love to see a new generation discover opera and find it emotionally viable and, from an experiential standpoint, even transformative," says Punt. "Opera has that potential in a way that no other medium does because it can take you to this really emotional place, especially since it's elevated by the music."

Punt is co-creator of a new opera commissioned by Portland State University that deals with a topic everyone has either witnessed, experienced or perpetuated—toxic masculinity. Mirror Game, written by Punt and composer Celka Ojakangas, addresses misogyny within the male-centric world of video games. Set in Silicon Valley, the story follows three women—Cybil, Olivia and Melody—as they compete for a higher-paying position and cope with a sexist male manager and CEO.

Punt, whose 2016 opera, The Place Where You Started, was also commissioned by PSU, says the plot wasn't too hard to come by.

"At the time I was thinking of ideas, the Harvey Weinstein thing was blowing up," says Punt, whose Los Angeles location gave her somewhat of an intimacy with the situation as it unfolded. "Until we start to really address the disempowerment and othering of everyone who isn't a white straight male, we're not really going anywhere."

There's only so much one can do when continually shouting at deaf ears. Mirror Game serves as a creative outlet for ignored thoughts. These sensitive social issues are not new, but according to Punt and Ojakangas, opera may be the new avenue needed to help younger people cope with such problems.

"I was really drawn to the fact this hasn't really been done before," says Ojakangas, who composed all of the music in about five months. "That was a really big thing for me, since I feel like people my age could really benefit from having an opera that is based on stuff we know in current events."

The plot and libretto definitely focus on social issues, but Ojakangas' music references the tech industry in a more general sense. Ojakangas and Punt consider themselves sci-fi and video game nerds, so on top of having a personal interest in how the story plays out, it was an opportunity to make Mirror Game a work for gamers and opera aficionados alike.

"I needed to go with my gut and write sounds that were familiar to me, so there are a lot of familiar sounds and tunes that people know from video games of the '90s and 2000s," says Ojakangas. "I purposefully put really catchy tunes all over the opera and little earworms that would be easy for people to remember. There's also some very plaintive stuff inspired by new music composers like Georg Friedrich Haas, so it's a mishmash of eclectic poppy sounds and modern music."

But even if you're not a gamer or an opera lover, it's worth appreciating Mirror Game for its unorthodox presentation of relevant issues. PSU is premiering the piece in its workshop form—"it's piano reduction only, even though I'll be using an electronic keyboard, but after this one, I'll flesh it out into a fully orchestrated score," says Ojakangas—so future performances may have entirely different elements. But the story will stay the same, and what Punt and Ojakangas hope people get out of it will stay the same as well.

"I really worked to make the themes universal, and to find the most entertaining way to tell that story to enjoy the journey, even if it's a little bit darker," says Punt. "They're coming to see something to have an experience, so why not give them a good one?"

SEE IT: Mirror Game is at Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave., pdx.edu.com. 7:30 pm Friday-Sunday, 3 pm Sunday, Nov. 29-Dec. 8. $30.

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