Interview: Ryan McKinny of ORFANO MONDO at Atlanta Opera

McKinny expands his talent base from opera singer to film director/editor.

By: Mar. 11, 2021
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Interview: Ryan McKinny of ORFANO MONDO at Atlanta Opera

They say necessity is the mother of invention. This is especially true for artisans during the pandemic. One of the oldest art forms, opera, like so many other art forms has shifted and evolved as a result of the current climate. Atlanta Opera is no exception. When you go to their webpage, you'll find a new widget at the top labeled STREAM. Once you click on that, you'll see a drop-down: WHAT'S ON. Click on that, and you'll find Orfano Mundo, a visual and auditory treat. For only $15 a month or $99 a year, patrons will have all access to ATL Opera's streaming service.

The work, which stars and was created by nationally acclaimed baritone, Ryan McKinny, in collaboration with filmmaker Felipe Barral, is broken up into a episodic series of eight episodes. The first seven episodes are currently available. Each episode lasts between 10-15 minutes.

I was fortunate enough to have the incredible opportunity of interviewing Ryan McKinney, a very approachable and down-to-earth person who also happens to be a well-known opera singer turned film-maker. Here's what he had to say.

How did this opportunity come about?

Maybe I'll just give you the whole spiel: Early on in the pandemic, I got lucky in the very beginning because I was working for Houston Grand Opera. They, unlike a lot of companies-- actually Atlanta is similar to Houston in this way--were able to pay their artists fifty percent of their fees when they were canceled. Which for me meant we had a few months buffer before things got really scary for myself and my colleagues. Even very well-known opera singers were just totally out of luck..

They asked me to turn the film work that I've been doing back in the summer and come join their team to turn their work into this film version of the performances themselves. Then also this other thing which I made up, which has turned into this strange but interesting series I called Orfano Mundo. So, I started making these kind of silly videos for an initiative I called Keep the Music Going, and we ended up raising quite a lot of money for Artist Relief Tree, which offered relief to singers who were out of work. That snowballed into more projects.

How did you transition from Opera into directing film?

I had grown up around movie sets because my dad was a cinematographer and so I had sort of a history of being interested in film and had it as a side project. I became interested in the idea of turning opera into film or "cross-contaminating" those two things for a long time and kind of had a moment where someone was interested in it. Of course, this situation (the pandemic) made that immediately much more interesting to everyone. So, I started initially borrowed a nicer camera from some family and we started making some things. I eventually got commissioned for a piece by the Glimmer Glass Opera and then the Kennedy Center. We made a thing called Monuments of Hope for them. Tomer Zvulun (General Artistic Director, Atlanta Opera) I think may have seen what we're up to you by that time, and he asked me to be part of The Company of Players which was a group of singers he had put together, you know, like a repertory group you might have in a theater--which doesn't reality happen in Opera--so that was kind of a big innovation for them. I didn't have a lot of time because of the projects I had going on to be in the operas they were planning for the Fall. He said, "We're committed to doing a lot of film work and maybe you'd be interested in being part of that."

I said, "I definitely would," and so I was part of the initial meetings of storyboarding ideas for the operas, and eventually they put on these amazing live performances. We were on the fence --we had these ideas of pieces that could be reinterpreted to be something with a little more scope, and we eventually settled on the idea that we would release the full operas on their own just kind of as they were live. Felipe did a great job of camera work on those.

Then I had some ideas about how we could run the story, because when you're there--and for anyone that had attended these performances--one of the most striking things was not just that they're amazing singers and it's amazing opera, but we're in a cirque tent. The singers are in masks, the audience is in masks, the singers are behind these plastic barriers. There's a whole story behind the story that feels very connected to the opera itself. I was very interested in finding a way to mesh those two worlds together. In Piace, which is the first of the two one-act operas they did, a big plotline is it's this troop of theater people. they're on the road, and the story on the stage takes on the life of the story off the stage. That, to me, was this immediate connection to what we were going through in the real world. We shot a few extra scenes for the project and we talked about the idea to make it into a series because I thought it was more vignettes of what are the entry points into this world that actors and characters are in, but also that we are in in the world. That evolved into what it is now and it's a really experimental, very--I think--different look at the opera genre than I think probably most people would be used to; hopefully something we can continue to evolve, and we'll play with in the future again.

I'm more a theater person and not an opera person, and I was blown away by the first episode.

I really appreciate that. It's always nice especially knowing what people get out of these things who are not necessarily opera people because with everything going in the country this is a chance to branch out and cross collaborate between theater people, opera people, dance, and symphony. We can pull together and try to keep these amazing art forms alive in a time that's really difficult for everyone, obviously.

For so long, theater, opera, and television/film were, for the most part, completely separate entities and you're seeing them come together in new and different ways.

So now I've made films for Dallas opera, two for Houston Grand Opera, one for On-Site Opera in NYC , Glimmer Glass, Kennedy Center, and Atlanta Opera, so that's become really a focus of my work. Now some colleagues and I have started a thing called "Sandbox" which is essentially these types of projects, but also the opportunity to grow the space between these art forms right now. We are collaborating with opera companies and with dance companies, We have a project we're working on right now where we are hoping to partner with the Joffrey ballet and a dear friend of mine who some of your readers and viewers may know called John Holiday is an opera singer who also was a finalist on NBCs The Voice -he's quite a force --and we're working on a few projects with him also combining with some spoken word artists.

In a way, there's some blessing that has come out of the pandemic.

I feel like all of this stuff --as you say there's some blessing that has come out of this. I don't like the phrase "Silver Lining" because, of course, the bottom line is it's been bad for most people. Anytime people are dying and you're losing loved ones and your world is upended it's hard to say there's a silver lining, but I do think the Opera business has been ripe for reimagination for while a while, and I sometimes when you are n the worst spot is when you're able to come up with the most interesting ideas. Right now there's a level of openness to experimentation that there never has been in the arts in general, but specifically in opera, and I think that's great for us. Opera specifically was the art form when it was in its heyday -- Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, those folks--it was the art form that brought all the art forms together. I think if Wagner were alive today, for example; he would love film, virtual reality, video games, and he would use all of those things in his pieces. In adhering to tradition, the way that opera tends to have sometimes felt we are a little bit behind the times in terms of what's available to make art. I hope this show shows that singing is an innately human activity. When you are born you make sounds to express yourself before you can even make words, and that is something I don't think we need to worry about disappearing. Whether it happens in this specific corner of artistry like opera or it's in some other way, or it's musical theater--we don't need to spend so much time thinking "Opera is dying is a thing". I've heard that since I started learning about it when I was 20, and I think the only solution is to continue to breathe new life into it which, to me, means reimagining all of it. The format when we're talking about--film vs live, or it's the pieces themselves--doing new pieces, or how it has evolved. All the ways you can reimagine something we should just always be doing.

Pre pandemic what was your background?

Both my parents were classical guitarists in college, so I grew up with classical music, although they weren't professional. I was in chorus a lot as a kid and really enjoyed it. That was my entry point into singing and when I went to Pasadena City College after high school, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I found a voice teacher just because I wanted to try it and he was like, "You know, you might really think about being serious about this, It seems like you have a pretty good voice (and etc.)" I got a little more serious about it. I eventually moved to New York and went to the Julliard School. I did my apprenticeships at Houston Grand Opera and I've sung all over the place now. I've sung at the Met Opera, I've sung in London, Milan, LA, San Francisco and Chicago--all the places--and it's been a really wonderful time. I was singing the title role in Don Giovani when everything was shut down at the Kennedy Center in March. That was the last time I performed live.

I'm from southern CA. Born in Santa Monica and spent most of my growing up was in the Pasadena area. Now I'm in Asheville NC. I have family a few hours from here in Winston Salem NC. I love the mountains and can't afford the mountains in California. My wife, Tanya McKinney, and I really love it here and it's really easy to get anywhere on the eastern seaboard opera-wise. Also, we have a film community here which was initially why we came back because that's what we wanted to focus on. Of course that's gone really well for us. It's nice to have the mountains out the window.

Back to the project--how was it filmed?

Felipe filmed 6 performances of each live performance, Then we did a set of shots for my extra scenes. We took a couple of takes for each one. We didn't have a lot of extra time because it wasn't a full film production situation so a lot of what you see in this version is a lot of my re-editing and re-imagining what Felipe has actually shot.

I directed this version and have been editing it. I think it's funny with these types of projects because it's like, "who directed it? Whose idea was everything" Tomer is an amazing director and this stage production is what we filmed so a lot of the choices are his. I was in the process of decision-making early on. We are officially calling me the director of this, but it's a collaborative effort.

We didn't have a show-runner (in film, a show-runner is someone who works with all aspects of the show to make sure the director's vision is carried out). We had the opera people that were there. We had a stage manager. The opera people are getting better at knowing what a film set would normally require. When we filmed this, we were in the initial stages of learning about that so it was very much "run and gun". We had time to do, "Let's do this, and let's grab that and see what else we can do in the time we have".

The opening sequence of episode one was a really neat moment, can you elaborate on that?

That was inspired by a YoutTube thing I made back when we were first rehearsing. A little 5 minute -- what was initially a youtube series is what this became. It starts with Megan Marino, who is the singer that is in her street clothes and playing her melodica. I thought, "This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen", it's an opera singer with a melodica and I think she was barefoot at the time. There's a theme in the further episodes that center around life and death with shoes. That comes from the second opera Kaiser of Atlantis -- a big part of the story of the Holocaust is about people's belongings and we wove that through the whole thing. What is our identity and what is life to a character, to an artist, and to a person. It was interesting to me to start off the show with her in this whole other place by herself reflecting on a situation in her street clothes. That was poignant to me.

When will you plan to perform again?

As soon as they'll let us, I guess. But my next real big gig is at the Met singing Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro in December. There are some possibilities in the fall, but we're just going to have to wait and see. There are 10 performances of Figaro in the Jan-Feb period beginning next year. But for the moment, I'm working on these films.

I hope people who don't normally see opera will see this as they probably don't realize how much theatricality is involved. The opening scene with the patrons coming in and having temp checks, the news clips, it was very well put together.

Thank you. Almost all the films I've worked on have been with my wife, Tonya. The projects I'm working on now include a black history walking tour of NYC with On Site Opera. If you like this type of thing, there's a lot of it that's being experimented with right now and just check it out.