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Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, Episode 9

Vireo is the first-ever made-for-TV-and-internet opera created expressly for the episodic series medium, shot in front of live audiences.

The Latest Update

Recap of Episode 9 Shoot & KQED Feature

Posted on July 19, 2016 by Lisa Bielawa

Hello to our ever-growing Vireo community,

The Vireo production officially went national last month as our LA-based crew joined forces with new team members in San Francisco. We had an incredible experience on the historic Alcatraz Island and wanted to share some highlights and photos with you, as well as offer our enormous thanks for helping to make an ambitious shoot like this possible!

We were delighted to have KQED’s Charlise Tiee join us on the island and soak up everything that goes on during a Vireo shoot. Last week she published this terrific, in-depth feature article about the opera.

Director Charlie Otte and Director of Photography Greg Cotten pulled off masterful shots, culminating in their signature single 12-minute take, and captured stunning footage to and from the island with the full majesty of Alcatraz in view, all with the help of the expert crew.

Cast members were soprano Rowen Sabala as “Vireo,” soprano Emma MacKenzie as “Caroline,” and baritone Gregory Purnhagen as “The Priest/Doctor.” Guest musicians were NY-based “contemporary music dynamos” (NPR) American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), a sextet of superb singers from Cappella SF, a handful of volunteer ringers from Handbell Ventures, and Randy Matamoros, who provided stirring sounds from his hurdy-gurdy. Our entire cast got in costume back on shore (so we could shoot on the boat); Vireo characters and tourists mingling together proved to be an amusing sight!

I was floored by how breathtaking Rowen’s performance of her aria “The Bat” sounded in the Alcatraz cell. This was the very first scene that librettist Erik Ehn and I sketched for Vireo, more than 20 years ago, so it was very moving for me to hear it in such an profound setting.

It was also great to have ACME as musicians for this shoot, since they were in fact the first group ever to perform music from Vireo during my residency at The Stone in 2014.

The beautiful acoustics of the well-worn walls inside Alcatraz also added to the incredible performance of Cappella SF as lamenting prisoners, who accompanied baritone Gregory Purnhagen’s searching aria.

This was our first shoot outside LA, resulting in a mashup of veteran team members from LA and new faces from San Francisco, including SF Production Manager Lori Halloran, First Assistant Director (with deep Alcatraz expertise) Cara Miller, and our fearless new Bay Area Producer Marnie Burke de Guzman. The way everyone worked together was fluid, respectful, intense, and all-around astonishing!

We cannot WAIT to show you the footage and performances for Episode 9 when it’s released on KCET in spring 2017. Until then, Vireo moves east to shoot our next episodes in the New York area this September.

See all our photos from Episode 9 on Alcatraz Island

All the best,
Lisa Bielawa


Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser is a new opera composed by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte, unprecedented in that it is being created expressly for episodic release via broadcast and online media, in partnership with KCET’s Artbound. Vireo is an artist residency project of Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) at California State University, Fullerton, Director/Chief Curator John Spiak.

Vireo is the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award, and is currently in production. In spring 2017 KCET will release all episodes of Vireo at once for free, on-demand streaming, which is a first for the network.

The Vireo team, in collaboration with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and Capella SF, will shoot episode 9 in June inside Alcatraz Prison.

The main shoot for Episode 9 will take place on June 21, 2016, in the hospital ward and exercise yard at Alcatraz, where members of Capella SF, dressed as prisoners, will provide the environment for the action. This episode contains Vireo’s most expansive aria, when she finds herself in jail after naming many prominent townspeople as witches. We will shoot the entire episode, including this aria, on site at Alcatraz with a string quartet from ACME in her cell with her.

Vireo considers the nature and uses of female hysteria through time, as witch-hunters, early psychiatrists, and modern artists variously define the condition. Based on Bielawa’s own research at Yale as a Literature major, then freely adapted and re-imagined by librettist Ehn, Vireo is a composite history of the ways that teenage-girl visionaries’ behaviors have been manipulated, incorporated, and interpreted by the communities of men surrounding them throughout history, from the Dark Ages, to Salem Massachusetts, 19th-century France, the Surrealists in Paris, and contemporary performance art. Featuring arias for dying cows, infatuated students, and disembodied ageless women, the opera provides a thoughtful look at the universal issues of gender identity, perception, and reality.

Project Media

Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, Episode 1: The Blow (entire episode)
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In the pilot episode, shot at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana, CA, in February 2015, with the then-16-year-old Rowen Sabala as Vireo, Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin as the Voice, Gregory Purnhagen as The Doctor, and Maria Lazarova as The Mother, a chorus evokes the time and place: a forest, 16th-century France. A young woman named Vireo carries coals home from a neighbor’s house; she hears a disembodied voice. The voice leaves, she falls to fits. Doctor and Mother decide she must be possessed.

Start and End Dates



San Francisco, California

1 update
Last update on July 19, 2016

Associated Event

October 30, 2017 | New York, NY
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New York, New York
Lisa Bielawa is a Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition. Bielawa’s work consistently incorporates community-making as part of her artistic vision, including her made-for-TV-and-online opera Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser; Broadcast from Home, a large-scale interactive work in response to the coronavirus pandemic crisis; and music for public spaces in Lower Manhattan, the banks of…

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