Tuesday, February 23, 2021

SistaStrings brings "The Sound" to Milwaukee Opera Theatre

New music video debuts for second Distance Commission

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) continues its experiment in theater-from-a-distance with a new virtual collaboration. Together with Milwaukee-based duo SistaStrings, MOT has created their first-ever music video, featuring filming by Traveling Lemur, lighting by Encore Theatrical Lighting, puppet design (yep) by Angry Young Men, sound design by Johanna Rose, and a stellar vocal ensemble.

At the heart of the collab is, of course, SistaStrings. Chauntee and Monique Ross formed the group in 2014. Their music truly can’t be pigeonholed. Their site says the SistaStrings sound “combines their classical background with R&B with a touch of gospel influence that culminates in a vibey, lush sound.” With soulful voices and gorgeous harmonies between violin and cello, this duo is unlike any other. 

So how did this collaboration come about? Director Jill Anna Ponasik reached out to Chauntee and Monique and asked, “What’s something Milwaukee Opera Theatre could help you make that you wouldn’t produce on your own?” Swiftly, they gave Ponasik their wishlist: a music video about imposter syndrome — with puppets and a choir. 

And that’s exactly what Ponasik and company delivered at this weekend’s Zoirée (Zoom soirée). The hour-long virtual event followed a four-part format: a pre-recorded interview with Chauntee and Monique, a viewing of their music video The Sound, a Q&A talk-back, and finally a live performance.

During the interview, we learn how Monique (cello) and Chauntee (violin) first fell in love with their respective strings. It was love at first listen for Monique and the cello: “It was so beautiful,” she says, the memory a clear and wistful one. Asked what exactly the sound is in The Sound, the sisters touch on that aforementioned imposter syndrome: the irritating noise of others in their heads as they grew up. Those voices told them to “tone it down” or be other than what they are, which is out-loud in love with their instruments and their music. 

Now for the puppets. Chauntee and Monique reference a film they saw that used puppets to represent the “other.” It’s the idea that you can send a serious message, but sending it with puppets makes it easier to digest and even draws some laughter along the way. As was mentioned during the talk-back, “puppets can say and do things we as humans cannot.” In The Sound, each sister is represented by a puppet. It’s a chance, they say, to exist free from stereotypes. 

On the sisters’ desire for a choir: “Just a dream, just a dream.” It’s a dream that Milwaukee Opera Theatre helped bring to life. The music video for The Sound opens with footage of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. The chants of the protests mingle with the strings warming up. “The sound drives me crazy,” the refrain repeats. Harmonious voices and strings, sparkling face masks, shades of purple and blue in braids, puppets, lighting — this is a striking collaboration, and it’s one that is better seen and heard, not read about. 

Chauntee and Monique closed this Zoirée with "Amazing Grace," played from two separate locations. Even the limitations of Zoom couldn’t muddy their glorious music. I walked away from this experience eager to see SistaStrings live. I hope that day is sooner than later. 

In the end, what resonated most with me was the joy worn on the sleeve of each and every artist involved in The Sound. After a year of a lot of nothingness and uncertainty on the Arts front, this group of creators and performers voiced during the talk-back how genuinely pleased they were just to get a call from Ponasik asking them to flex their creative muscles once more. As a review-writer, I can relate to that thirst for involvement. Enormous thanks to Ponasik and MOT for involving us all. 

Catch The Sound at three more Zoirées: February 26th & 27th at 7:30pm, and February 28th at 2pm. Info and tickets at milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

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