A Podcast-Opera About Early Chatrooms is a Funhouse Mirror for Our Very Online Lives

An opera released as a podcast, 'The Electronic Lover' dives into the online drama of early adopters of the internet in the '80s, revealing truths about our very online world. (Den Nelson)

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ver since the pandemic flattened our physical world into a mostly digital plane, the theater of human life has unfolded on Zoom, TikTok and Instagram. Meet-ups and breakups, weddings and divorces, childbirths and funerals all take place now in the 2D space of our screens.

Given the—sigh—current moment, the internet provides a fitting setting for one of the timeliest art projects to come out this year: The Electronic Lover, an opera released in the form of a podcast that’s set at the dawn of the internet, where the intrigue plays out in an early ’80s chatroom. Though librettist Beth Lisick and composer Lisa Mezzacappa began working on The Electronic Lover three years ago, the podcast arrives just in time for the COVID era, when seeing live opera isn’t an option and performing artists struggle to adapt. The pilot episode comes out Aug. 14, with a virtual launch party including the cast and creators hosted that evening by the Center for new Music.

While there are podcasts about opera, as well as fiction podcasts devoted to narrative storytelling, The Electronic Lover is the first time (at least according to my research and the creators’ knowledge) that an opera has been presented in serialized episodes for streaming on Apple, Stitcher and other podcasting platforms. It’s also both creators’ first official foray into the genre, though one could say that their past endeavors prepared them for the task. Lisick, co-founder of the popular San Francisco live storytelling event Porchlight, is known for funny, gonzo-style writing about artist life. Mezzacappa is best-known as a jazz bass improviser and composer whose ambitious collaborations have pulled from literature.

Together, the two artists decided to use opera to explore a time when the internet—a tool that so many of us now use to discover our identities, craft personas and find communities—allowed strangers to anonymously spill their guts to one another through green letters on a black screen. The early ’80s was a naive era when chatrooms encouraged emotional intimacy, decades before the United States president would use Twitter to decree foreign policy. Before white supremacists coordinated terroristic acts on message boards. And before being a woman on the internet meant being subjected to unsolicited dick pics and misogynistic trolling.

“As soon as you hear ‘internet chatroom,’ before, it was like, ‘How cool, you’re going to be talking to people across the country,’” says Lisick. “Now you hear it and it’s like, ‘There’s going to be trouble.’ It mostly conjures negative ideas. In the beginning, it was this amazing thing. You could talk about anything.”

Composer Lisa Mezzacappa. (Tim Rowe)

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he first episode of The Electronic Lover opens with sung thought fragments from strangers who’ve used their dial-up modems to connect to cyberspace, looking to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in their physical realities. A woman gripes about a bike injury; another confesses about the public spaces where she’s had sex. Each line in the chat is sung by a different performer, accompanied by a sparse instrumental soundtrack of drums, electronic bass and synthesizer. Mezzacappa recorded them one at a time, with proper social distancing, to make the process as pandemic-safe as possible. Oddly—and fittingly—many of the singers recorded their lines with an accompaniment of AI-generated vocals since they couldn’t all be in the room together. But the result, stitched together in software, still feels as natural as a pre-COVID ensemble.

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“In a way it almost models how weird this world we’re conjuring from the early ’80s is,” says Mezzacappa. “Everybody is trying to make connections and being so vulnerable with these people they can’t see and haven’t met. It’s the same with these singers, they’re singing with computer-generated voices as the mockup of the band and other singers.”

She adds, “My hope is that the constraints of this new environment actually lead to interesting, new creative ideas about how to work together. You can fight it as this lame version of the thing you wanted to do, or you can start to think, ‘What can I do now that would be totally different and something I haven’t thought of?’”

Internet connectivity wasn’t commonplace in American households until 2001, so those who had access to chatrooms in the early ’80s were typically academics, tech professionals and hobbyists who could afford computers. In those days, to exchange selfies, one would have to print out a photo and send it by snail mail, so internet friendships were personal and intentional. Lisick learned a lot about this as a young nightlife columnist for SFGate in the ’90s. Her boss, John Coate, had worked at the WELL, an early online community, and he helped turn SFGate into one of the world’s first successful news sites.

Librettist Beth Lisick. (Amy Sullivan)

In episode one of The Electronic Lover, we meet Margot Halperin, a midwife who leaves an off-the-grid commune for a new job where her expertise in emotional labor comes in handy for moderating a chatroom. Voicing the idealistic aspirations of the internet’s early adopters, Margot (voiced by Michelle Amador) sings: “You can connect people all over the world, he said / A free exchange of ideas, he said / Soon everyone will have one in their homes, he said / It will be the great equalizer, he said.”

But quickly, the women on the chat encounter mansplaining and misogynistic assumptions. Then, a user named Joan offers an idea that has been resonant from the days of Virginia Woolf to today’s online “safe spaces”: what the women need is a chatroom of one’s own.

“It was interesting when there was a caretaker keeping things cool,” says Lisick. “And now, there’s nobody doing that. I mean, look at our president. There’s no one that’s out there trying to maintain a level of safety for anybody.”

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n our interview, Lisick and Mezzacappa decline to give too much detail about what comes next, as the following episodes still have yet to be recorded and are due out in 2021. But those dying to learn more about the action can read the 1985 Ms. Magazine article that served as the opera’s inspiration. It deals with a classic case of online catfishing.

“A lot of the things that happen will resonate with women’s and girls’ experiences on the internet,” Mezzacappa hints.

The concept of someone pretending to be someone else online has provided pop culture with endless fascination. It’s the basis of an MTV reality show and more recent controversies, like the identity reveal of influencer @EmoBlackThot, who attracted a massive following, mostly of Black women, by posing as one. The intrigue of an internet impostor is great fodder for a high-drama art form like opera, and the subject matter makes the podcast accessible even to those whose ears need adjusting to a sung storyline, with only a few spoken lines here and there from the narrator.

The ways catfishers infiltrate the emotions of their unwitting victims—typically people who feel alienated in their IRL worlds and are seeking connection through a screen—makes The Electronic Lover relatable and gripping.

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“It’s funny and sexy and weird,” says Mezzacappa. “Everything about the story is operatic.”