BEMIDJI, Minn. — 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 has 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 more than a dozen student performers, student production assistants and NLFX productions — to take opera from a live experience to a cinematic one.

Renbarger and BSU theater students have produced a film opera inspired by the pandemic, which will be released for public viewing soon (watch for details on www.bemidjistate.edu). The show, titled “Things Lost and Things Found,” serves as a metaphor for the Bemidji State theater 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,” Renbarger 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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Renbarger, the coordinator of applied voice and director of Opera Theater at BSU, wanted to give Bemidji a production. Pandemic regulations first made it seem like a Sisyphean task.

“How do we do that when we can't even be within 6 feet of each other?” he said.

“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.

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.
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.”

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 2 hours of, but they can do it for 10 minutes. It allowed us a chance to kind of stretch into a lot of areas.”

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.
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.

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 film production to a live theater performance to "turning a bus versus a little car.”

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

Unlike any other BSU theater 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 also will likely reach many more people than could ever squeeze within the walls of the Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex for a live performance.

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