Serial Composer Lisa Bielawa

New-music fire-starter Lisa Bielawa breaks ground with a pioneering opera for episodic TV

In “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser,” the composer and artist in residence at Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana delves into history’s female teenage visionaries and the men who wrote about them. Her vision: Produce her fantastical opera in 12-minute segments for television and online. —Benjamin Epstein

Bielawa, 46, has toured as the vocalist with the renowned Philip Glass Ensemble since she was 22, and she won the prestigious Rome Prize for musical composition. She also was a literature major at Yale, where she did research that turned into “Vireo.”

“A French literature class led me to the surrealists and to turn-of-the-20th-century neurologists who were studying female hysterics—intelligent male authors who would find adolescent girls in neurological hospitals or absinthe bars and write about them.”

“Vireo” looks at the men’s portrayals of these adolescents as witches or as divinely inspired, but the work also has its lighter side.

“This is a playful, fantastical tale, informed by history. I’m interested in creating joyful experiences, not finger-wagging experiences.”

“Vireo” is surrealistic. When the women of Salem determine that there must be more witches to burn because cows are still dying, an ailing cow has an aria.

“There are other cameos like that. It’s the ‘Arrested Development’ of opera!”

Bielawa lives mostly in New York but travels worldwide for work. She created an out-of-the-box piece on a Berlin airport tarmac using hundreds of musicians, including an orchestra of alpenhorn players. Her three-year residency here inspired “Vireo’s” unprecedented installment format.

“This is TV land. What I see here is the serial media form and the whimsical use of media culture. … I’m not interested in doing away with anything. It’s about keeping opera open to the changes in our culture.”

The 25-minute pilot was taped in February at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana. New-music specialists Kronos Quartet played and Orange County School of the Arts junior Rowen Sabala stars. What Bielawa appreciates about the Yost are its flexibility and acoustics.

“The first thing I noticed was the 1912 hammered tin roof—it sounds fantastic there! No matter where you look, it’s interesting and weird; no matter where you are, you sound great.”

See it! Watch “Vireo” at 8 p.m., March 31 on KCET Channel 28; 8 p.m., April 6 on Link TV (DirecTV Channel 375 and Dish Channel 9410); and streaming at and

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