They are the characters of “You Us We All,” a contemporary rendition of the baroque court masque. This 16th and 17th century form of entertainment is revived by Shara Worden’s opera, with libretto, design and directing by Andrew Ondrejcak.
The music is commissioned by Baroque Orchestration X, a modern baroque orchestra led by Pieter Theuns.
Shara Worden, who is also the lead singer of rock band My Brightest Diamond, said the idea for “You Us We All” was brought up over sushi.
“Andrew (Ondrejcak) was sharing office space with Sufjan (Stevens), and when I went in to record Age of Adz, I met Andrew then,” she said.
The two went to see a production of the “Fairy Queen,” an opera adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but left about halfway through.
“Once the rabbits started boinging on each other, we just decided to leave for sushi. And over that conversation, Andrew was like, ‘I want to write opera,’” Worden said.
But development didn’t really start until two years later.
“Pieter Theuns from BOX, the baroque ensemble, was at a My Brightest Diamond gig in Belgium, and he asked to have an appointment with me, and he said, ‘My baroque ensemble is looking to collaborate with singer-songwriters,’” Worden said.
Worden proposed involving Ondrejcack, who would design it and write the text.
“I didn’t know that when you put Andrew on a project, he explodes it,” she said.
“So by bringing Andrew in, we brought in other singers, and he wanted other characters, and we discovered the tradition of the baroque masque, and it kind of unfolded from there.”
Although “You Us We All” is most easily described as a “modern take” on baroque opera, that interpretation is not necessarily the most accurate.
“By and large the music is very, very modern,” she said.
What’s most musically baroque about this opera, Worden said, is the nature of the instruments themselves.
“They’re so particular. The strings don’t sound like a violin, a cello and a base — they sound like very, very different kinds of strings instruments.”
Elements of the Baroque era also surface more subtly in references to Monteverdi and Bach.
Worden also said the characters themselves were drafted in a very baroque fashion.
“In the Baroque era, there were these archetypal characters. They were kind of the gods of the time. Fire would have a conversation with Earth or Air. So we wanted to use this idea of these characters being these archetypes and explore each of their characteristics and what that looks like in this day and age,” she said.
Students at UNC have a unique opportunity to observe hints of the musical past in this composition.
First-year Katherine Combs is attending the opera tonight with her music history class.
“I’m just excited to be able to use what I’ve learned in the class and not strictly go to a Mozart opera, but bring it in a different direction that’s interesting and relevant,” she said.
Combs also said the only operas familiar to her are not of the modern era, which makes “You Us We All” even more interesting to her.
Postdoctoral fellow at Carolina Performing Arts, Aaron Shackelford, said operas used to hold much more mass appeal.
“It was one the dominant art forms and, by that status, held importance to a lot of people — not just to the upper class necessarily,” Shackleford said.
There is a reason there are so many opera halls —or buildings previously used as opera halls — in cities and university campuses.
“‘You Us We All’ is asking, ‘What if we assume if that (popularity) can still be the case?’” he said.
“You Us We All” demands to be noticed through its humor and its subject’s scope.
“The heart of the piece is really in seeing the humanity, looking at someone else and seeing yourself in them,” Worden said. “I think what’s surprising to people is that the piece is really, really funny. There’s a kind of playfulness and discovery about what it means to be a human being.”
“I hope people will come and laugh and cry, and laugh again,” Worden said.