Houston Grand Opera’s digital rendition of Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera isn’t just for the birds—even if its name might make you think otherwise.
This unconventional comedy, which becomes available to stream later this week, dives into the highly competitive and totally real-world of “finch-sitting.” Seriously, the sport (yep, it’s considered a sport) dates back to the late 1500s in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. So, what does one do whilst vinkenzetting, you ask? Well, trainers compete to see whose avian teammate can make the most birdcalls over the course of an hour.
From humiliating disqualifications over a flubbed note to deep-seated rivalries between teams, the sport is clearly made for dramatizing. And that’s exactly what composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek tried to capture in their unusual opera, which premiered in 2010. If you’re wondering just how unusual we’re talking, well, all six of the characters are referred to by the names of their birds. And what glorious names those feathered divas have: There’s a Sir Elton John, a Holy St. Francis, and even an Atticus Finch. Get it?
Even with all the vinkeniers and their vinkenzetting, Vinkensport is really about the different characters we meet within the opera, says Houston Grand Opera studio artist Elena Villalón, who plays Farinelli’s Trainer. “We all know a cat lady; we all know someone who drinks too much and is in a bad marriage,” the award-winning soprano and native Houstonian tells us, “but we find these people, in this story, through this odd sport that takes place in Belgium.”
The peculiar premise isn’t the only thing that makes Vinkensport different from other HGO productions. This digital show has been filmed as a kind of mockumentary, alternating between interviews with the trainers during one of these vinkenzetting events and b-roll footage of them in their everyday lives. The approach was unlike anything Villalón has done in her operatic career so far. “Most operas that are filmed use very few angles or cameras,” she says. “Here, every bit of music has a different shot to maximize the impact of the opera. We’re seeing all these different camera angles to really discover these characters.”
Since most of the action takes place during a competition, the trainers are spread out and rarely interact with each other. This, along with the outdoor setting, made it the perfect opera to produce while social distancing. Even still, HGO took safety precautions, filming each cast member separately and splicing them together in post-production.
Co-directors E. Loren Meeker and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (who also stars in the show) even devised a creative solution to protect performers during their single group rehearsal, Villalón reveals. “We were separated into cubicles—separated by panels of plastic—and all of us were six feet apart and wearing masks while we were singing.”