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'The Island We Made': Lip-Sync Opera And High Drag Sing An Ode To Mothers

Sasha Velour stars in <em>The Island We Made</em>, an opera composed by Angélica Negrón and filmed in a mid-century Staten Island house.
Matthew Placek
Courtesy of the artist
Sasha Velour stars in The Island We Made, an opera composed by Angélica Negrón and filmed in a mid-century Staten Island house.

Opera Philadelphia has, of course, spent the last year unable to stage live works in theaters. In response, they started creating original works written for the camera, to be shared and viewed online as part of an ongoing effort to bring a wider range of voices into the repertory.

"Our focus was not doing a pandemic Band-Aid. We needed to make this artistic expression that lived in its own right digitally," says David Devan, the company's general director. "For that reason, we don't see it going away. We see it augmenting our in-real-life performances." Opera Philadelphia has been using its new digital channel to try and expand the canon of contemporary opera, featuring work from Black composers like Tyshawn Sorey and Courtney Bryan, and Latina composers like Angélica Negrón, who composed the company's newest from the project, The Island We Made, which debuts today.

The Island We Made is a lullaby about mothers, an homage to the labor of childrearing. The lyrics are repetitive: my lungs, your voice, you made me, you fed me. The music was written by composer Angélica Negrón, who grew up in Puerto Rico in the '80s. Negrón says that her mother had many friends who were drag performers, so high glamour and high drama were regular parts of her childhood. "Just the immensity and the confidence of them, unapologetic, taking up space, for me was really impactful as a child to have around," Negrón says.

To some, The Island We Made may not look or sound like opera; there is no storyline in the video, filmed by Matthew Placek, or point at which a singer belts their feelings out to the rafters. In fact, the character we see isn't even singing – in characteristic drag fashion, Velour is lip-synching to the voice of an unseen singer, the musician Eliza Bagg.

The Island We Made does share one important aspect with traditional opera — an enormity of feeling. Negrón and Velour wrote it together, around the theme of mother-daughter relationships. Velour recalls speaking to Negrón about their experiences with mothers – Velour keeps her head shaved, and often performs without a wig, in tribute to her mother – about care and of all the ways relationships can be formed in gestures and silence.

"There's silence involved there, because my mother's passed," says Velour, whose mother lost her hair to chemotherapy. "I can't speak with her, but I do think about creating space for that relationship in different ways. My drag is a part of that."

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Peter Crimmins
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.