The Nitrate Hymnal
The Opera The Recording Performances Credits Get Involved
Origins of the Original Opera Production

This project arose out of a gift from my grandfather. He gave me all the 8mm home movies he shot during his marriage to my grandmother.

In many of the early films, my grandparents are younger than I am now. It's a bit of a cliché, but one can almost see their innocence. They were ordinary people, about to live through amazing events that would change them and history around them. In the first film, shot in late summer of 1941, they are honeymooners horsing around on the beach, flirting, splashing and playing. They have no idea that Pearl Harbor is only weeks away. What a moment. I think the innocence captured in that film is something they tried desperately to preserve and relive for the rest of their troubled life together.

All their subsequent moments are dilutions of that one, in a way. You can see that feeling fading in each subsequent film clip. I began to wonder what happened to them in between those happy little Kodak moments. This is the story the Nitrate Hymnal uncovers, in between the films – of the moments lost. The role of film and photography in shaping memory is no longer abstract, but deeply personal.

With music and video projections we can tell a bigger story than either would allow separately. The project assembles a handful of actor-singers, several projectors, and an orchestra of players from the new classical and underground rock scenes. It's a lot more work than booking bands in the basement, but that's where we learned how to do the impossible.

- Bob Massey

View our "postcards" from the production of The Nitrate Hymnal.


The Nitrate Hymnal is in four acts. Its five characters are Mimi, her husband Robert, their grandson Michael, the Nurse, and the Lover.

Scene: in a hospice facility

Michael, an aspiring filmmaker, visits his grandmother on her deathbed in hopes of completing a documentary about her life. He finds Mimi almost incoherent and watched over by a mysterious Nurse. Desperate to rouse her memories, Michael begins to project the family's old home movies. As they roll, we follow Mimi deep inside her head, where bits of actual history mixes with never-realized aspirations, and her nurse transforms into an otherworldly agent. Toward the end of each dream-memory, Mimi's dead husband, Robert, leaves her a reel of film purported to show the true essence of their relationship. Afraid of what this hidden moment might reveal, Mimi refuses to watch the film. Every act of the opera moves the story farther back in time, probing beyond the postcard happiness of the home movies and culminating in a truer picture of the life Mimi and Robert made together.

Creator's Note: The characters in this production are fictional. Art mines life for details, and the home movies are real, but the situations and characters portrayed are not. They are solely the product of the authors' imaginations. They are not meant to convey any private information about any real people.

Movies in the Original Production

View an excerpt of the Nitrate Hymnal in performance.

In the Nitrate Hymnal the projections serve the story. Fancy machines and video sleight-of-hand are awful cool, but without a reason for their existence, they're empty gestures.

Our aim with the multiple channels of video projection is to help bring the audience into Mimi's head. Now, just watching a home movie shown on stage won't do it. It's important that as Mimi shifts between dream and reality, the audience is right there with her. We have to put cutting-edge technology to use in a way that makes it feel as familiar and comfortable as the 8mm projector on stage. If done right, all the projectors and monitors and cables will fade away and the audience will be left inside Mimi's mind.

To get there, we're considering using 5 different projectors and screens. Each projector carries a discrete signal and they're all controlled by a multiple-in/multiple-out device called a matrix switcher. We'll talk about that later. What's important now is to consider three different ways projected video can exist on stage.

The first way is as backgrounds. This has become fairly common, with large-size rear projections replacing painted sets in a number of productions. We're doing this too, though we're trying to mix things up a little bit. Images shift with the slipperiness of a reality that cannot be taken for granted. (Our background screens also show most (though not all) of our supertitles. Riffing on the standard opera supertitles that offer translations of foreign librettos, ours highlight, clarify and occasionally comment on the words and events of the Nitrate Hymnal.)

The two midstage screens are part of the action. These show the home movies, many over 50 years old, that have been lovingly transferred to video (by the amazingly great folks at BRODSKY AND TREADWAY) and manipulated by David and Emily. Still clearly "home movies", these sequences have been modified to tell a completely different set of stories.

Finally, our downstage screens get the most use as interactive elements of the narrative. Mirroring Mimi's confused and delusional mindstate, actors drift in and out of these projections, paying little heed as to whether their existence is in two or three dimensions.

Now, like we said, if this is going to all work it has to first and foremost be in service to the story. The Nitrate Hymnal is very much concerned with the fragile nature of memory. A fragility that comes not only from age and dementia but a life lived in Hollywood reverie. It's also about the unreliability of home movies as documents of our past. So it makes perfect sense to us that characters have the freedom to move between past and present, foreground and background, projection and reality. If done right, our projections will destabilize what the audience thinks it knows about the past/present/future and push Mimi's delusions into everyone's head.

- David Wilson and Emily Koonse