By Amin El-Gamal
When I was asked to interview O-lan Jones, I have to admit I geeked out. Like a lot. In the theatre world, she is a bit of a legend. She originated countless roles in plays by the likes of Sam Shepard and Beth Henley. Plus, as any true 90s kid can tell you, she played iconic characters in such films as Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks and The Truman Show.
I had no idea she also wrote operas. For more than 30 years, her nonprofit Overtone Industries has been bringing to life mythic stories through original, multidisciplinary musical works. Overtone’s newest piece ICELAND blends a modern love story with a host of mythical characters from Icelandic folklore. It was written by O-lan and Irish singer-songwriter Emmett Tinley and will have a concert production directed by LA’s own Ken Roht at the Ford on October 7, with full orchestration and complete score.
When I entered the rehearsal hall, I was met with a haunting melody that felt ancient yet contemporary at the same time. A singer was standing by a piano learning the entrance song for the Giant, one of Iceland’s four protective mythical beasts, with Music Director David O.
“I am the mountain!” the singer bellowed.
“I am!” David sang back, standing in for the chorus.
Then I heard an infectious laugh and “that is gorgeous!” I turned around and there was O-lan.
When asked where she got the idea for the show, she tells me that she stumbled upon an Emmett Tinley CD in a swag bag, “obsessively downloaded all his music” and reached out to him on Facebook (Emmett lives in Denmark). One day, as she was driving, his song “Come To Life” came on.
“[His song] connected with a song I had written many, many years before,” O-lan said. “My song was about a woman lost on a sea of ice and letting go of memories one at a time and his is about seeing someone coming through the snow and back to life. Sort of instantaneously this whole outline appeared.”
She pitched the idea to Emmett who just so happened to have been studying Icelandic anthropology at the time. After two meetings in Iceland and a couple in LA, they had the beginnings of an opera.
ICELAND follows a woman named Vala and her estranged childhood sweetheart Mundur. Vala, though successful, feels like her life has lost meaning so she embarks on a trip to her hometown in North Iceland. At the airport, she bumps into Mundur. When her plane runs into trouble, she falls “out of the plane and off the map of the world” into the realm of mythical beasts, including invisible forces known as The Hiddenfolk. Mundur, hearing of her fall, goes on a quest to find her.
“It’s about how other people can remind you of who you are,” O-lan said. “And, how we tend to only live on the tip of the iceberg. We forget that there’s a whole hidden world.”
Indeed, characters like The Hiddenfolk are very much part of the collective consciousness in Iceland. Only a few years ago, concern for obstructing the homes of the hidden people (Huldufólk) delayed the creation of a new runway at the Reykjavik airport.
At the Ford, Vala will be played by LA-based performer Cesili Williams and Emmett will be playing Mundur. “You’re in for a treat. Emmett is fabulous,” O-lan added. “I don’t know why he isn’t as famous as a Neil Young or Rufus Wainwright, but he should be.”
At this point, David had begun working with mezzo soprano Aumna Iqbal (who recently appeared in Abduction from the Seraglio at the Ford) on a stunning, vocally acrobatic piece. Even at the early stages of rehearsal, the music soared. I closed my eyes and pictured myself sitting under the stars amidst the beautiful hillsides of the Ford as mythical creatures come to life on stage.
The ICELAND Concert takes place at the Ford Theatres on Friday, October 7 at 8:30 p.m.