Zombies invade stage, infect community with horror-themed opera

Written By Adelyn Biedenbach

“The Oakland safe zone is nearing capacity,” sang the alarmed Channel Eight news anchor as zombies began to overrun downtown Pittsburgh and surrounding neighborhoods.            Riots broke out, and the virus could not be contained.            The invasion, with over 70 extras, 29 studio choir members and a 10-person cast is part of the musical production of “Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera,” showing at the Grey Box Theatre in Lawrenceville until Oct. 23.            The production, combining the feel of a horror film with aspects of musical theater and opera, opened on Oct. 15, selling out its first show.            “We wanted to find another way and reason to keep people here in Pittsburgh,” said Elizabeth Rishel, co-artistic director and producer.            The opera took root in 2009 when Rishel composed the song “Screaming” as a stand- alone piece and pitched it to co-artistic director and producer Bonnie Bogovich.  Originally envisoned as a music video, the story began to grow.            An opera was born when Rishel and Bogovich decided to develop more songs and accompanying multimedia to create “Evenings in Quarantine.” Because both of them were Pittsburgh natives, their goal was to keep as many aspects of the production local as possible. The plot mentions Squirrel Hill, Oakland, Downtown for example.            “We started trying to write based on stereotypical characters that happen in every zombie film,” Bogovich said.Songs in the production feature the military, scientists in a laboratory, and an anchor at the Channel Eightnews station.            Bogovich and Rishel themselves star in the production as Ronnie and Izzie. The opera follows the two friends’ attempt to stay alive and also rescue their loved ones in an apocalyptic world in which zombies are around every corner.            The musical explores the elements of a zombie invasion while also focusing on the humanistic side of traumatic events.            “More frightening than [the fact that] your own loved ones could [return from the dead]] and kill you is that you might not be able to keep from killing your loved ones,” Rishel said.            The production is comprised of two parts: the action taking place on the intimate stage setting and the video production that airs in conjunction. The multimedia elements bring the already contemporary opera into the digital age.            Filming for the video elements began in May 2010, and wrapped in August. It features numerous recognizable Pittsburgh locations jeopardized as zombies overrun humans and chaos ensues.             “It was…a less is more approach,” said Arvin Clay, special effects makeup designer and visual effects supervisor.            Clay began developing “Evenings in Quarantine’s” zombies by researching the effects of diseases on the human body. He created makeup based on his research.            “To be honest, it was gross,” he said.            Clay also put extras through “zombie school” before every rehearsal and filming session.            “Have you ever seen a baby learning to walk?” he asked while roaming in a zombie-like demonstration. He taught his zombie students about exaggerated movements and animal instincts.            Clay, Rishel and Bogovich maintain that Pittsburgh is the “zombie city,” and many participants feel the production is a great fit for the town. Pittsburgh companies and organizations worked on every aspect of the project from filmmaking to casting to staging.            “Everyone in Pittsburgh wants to be a zombie. And not just a zombie but a gruesome, disgusting zombie,” Clay said.            “Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera” runs this weekend from Thursday, Oct. 21 to Saturday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, or $15 for students and seniors. They are available at the door or online at www.thezombieopera.com.