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Bemidji State faculty, students create ‘Things Lost and Things Found’ cinematic opera production

For Cory Renbarger, center stage has always been second nature. Then things took a “stage left” turn. COVID-19 has been a threat to the performing arts industry as a whole, and locally, it also dimmed the stage lights of in-person student productions. But, as they say, the show must go on. And in this case, it led the Bemidji State University music professor to reimagine what theatre could be.

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Bemidji State student performers sing in the woods during the on-location filming of the spring opera production. The film will be released to the public in early summer. Submitted photo.
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BEMIDJI -- For Cory Renbarger, center stage has always been second nature. Then things took a “stage left” turn.

COVID-19 has been a threat to the performing arts industry as a whole, and locally, it also dimmed the stage lights of in-person student productions. But, as they say, the show must go on. And in this case, it led the Bemidji State University music professor to reimagine what theatre could be.

Renbarger had a vision -- brought to life by around 15 student performers, student production assistants and NLFX productions -- to take opera from a live experience to a cinematic one.

Renbarger and BSU theatre students have produced a film opera inspired by the pandemic, which will be released for public viewing soon. The show, titled “Things Lost and Things Found,” serves as a metaphor for the Bemidji State theatre department and performers around the world adapting and finding new and creative ways out of this dark time.

“This project has been a huge payoff for curiosity. We've been able to create something out of nothing,” he said. “Whether this is normal or not, it's important, it's educational and it's fun. I've really found this to be a happy accident.”

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Turning a sedan

Since COVID-19 put a halt to regular productions at Bemidji State, the theatre department put their thinking caps on. Renbarger wanted to give the people of Bemidji, and the performers, a production -- but pandemic regulations first made it seem like a Sisyphean task.

“How do we do that when we can't even be within six feet of each other?” he said.

After abandoning plans to try to hold an in-person stage performance, Renbarger’s long-held dream of producing a film started to feel like less of a fantasy. Renbarger currently serves as the coordinator of applied voice and director of Opera Theater at BSU, where he joined the faculty in 2012.

“Talk turned toward film in mid-fall. We explored a bunch of options and it kind of seemed daunting. Then pieces started to fall into place,” he said. “It was December when we finally committed ‘let's try this.’ By mid-March, we had some cameras out.”

And thus, “Things Lost and Things Found” was born.

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Masked Bemidji State student performers rehearse a scene during the filming of the spring opera production. The film will be released to the public in early summer. Submitted photo.

“That's always been on my mind, put together a kind of a variety type show centered around a theme. The theme of this year seemed pretty fitting, I thought of the title “Things Lost Things Found,” half a show of things not working out -- things being lost is the ever-present tragedy of death in opera -- but then also show a half where love is found in the most unlikely of places,” Renbarger explained. “How fitting, you know to go forward and say, ‘This didn't stop us, this didn't defeat us.’ It's kind of our statement to the world that we're still here and we're going to thrive.”

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The show weaves together selections from various operas and musicals from all different genres and points in history -- even a song from West Side Story made the cut.

“It's pieces of music from operas that are 400 years old all the way up to operas that are really new,” Renbarger said. “It allowed us a chance for certain individuals to sing pieces from things that we probably couldn't do the whole show right now. We either don't have the actors, available for it or maybe some of the music is not appropriate for a 20-year-old to sing two hours of, but they can do it for 10 minutes. It allowed us a chance to kind of stretch into a lot of areas.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many of the scenes include masked performers. Scenes with only one or two performers or scenes taking place outside do not include masks.

“I staged things a certain way where there's not a whole lot of physical interaction, but at the same time we're expressing the emotions,” he said. “We tried really hard to still have movement and own the spaces that they're in.”

Renbarger compared directing a live theatre production versus a film production to turning a bus versus turning a small sedan.

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NLFX production and Bemidji State students monitor the filming of the spring opera production. The film will be released to the public in early summer. Submitted photo.

“It's a rush, it's an empowering feeling for the performers, and it's certainly an empowering feeling for me as director. I ask for something to happen and 16 people run in all directions and then something absolutely different occurs,” he said. “That's much harder to do in live theater because so many of those moving pieces it's like turning a bus versus a little car.”

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Due to the pandemic, many students who might’ve usually been involved in an annual theatre production weren’t physically in Bemidji, meaning this production had a smaller cast than usual.

Something to say

“The whole project began with the idea of maintaining some performance opportunities for the students, as well as an opera presentation for people to see,” Renbarger said.

He said performance is integral to the Bemidji State community.

“It's kind of in the culture here, since I've been here at least, and it's something I want to make sure stays,” he said. “It is really important that we use these wonderful spaces that we have and that the students have an outlet to do theater. It's also an educational opportunity to do something that you know that’s a big thing in the world. Opera has been here a long time and it's not going anywhere. I want to be a part of that here in Bemidji.”

Unintended consequences

The unique undertaking led to some unexpected learning opportunities and some more “happy accidents,” Renbarger said.

Unlike any other BSU theatre production, a film allowed for multiple takes, multiple angles and on-location filming. The director and performers had much more control over what the audience sees. The film will also likely reach many more people than could ever squeeze within the walls of the Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex for a live performance.

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A Bemidji State student performer sings in front of a green screen during the filming of the spring opera production. Submitted photo.

“Our students are kind of seeing more of the commercial world of music through this as well, that was kind of an unintended consequence,” Renbarger said. “We don't have the budget that the Avengers movies have, but I think it's still gonna be a lot of fun. Every scene has had at least two cameras, sometimes three or four. We have camera operators, we have mics all over the place to capture things.”

Would Renbarger embark on this challenge again? Maybe -- if time and funding allowed, he said. He said two things drive projects in the art world: having something to say and having the money to finance that vision. Regardless of whether or not BSU makes another film production, he said this one will raise the bar for future projects.

“I think this has made us all better, and it's going to make us expect more from now on,” he said.

The production is wrapping up editing and will be released for the public to view in early summer, Renbarger said. He said he hopes there will be some sort of live streaming premiere. More information will be available on the Bemidji State website as those details become clear.

“This has been an unbelievable catalyst for good change and good artistic things to happen,” he said. “Despite all of the problems, I think every student is leaving BSU this year a better musician than they started in the fall, and as an educator, I'm overjoyed.”

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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