Developing and staging a world-premiere opera requires passion, dedication, and a whole lot of teamwork. When the live debut of “The Copper Queen,” Arizona Opera’s new production five years in the making, was cancelled due to COVID-19, the team behind it decided to think outside the concert hall. The result was a new vision: a feature film that could bring the work to audiences around the world.
To realize this ambitious goal, they partnered with Manley Films, the Official Film Production Sponsor of Arizona Opera. “Arizona Opera has been a valued client of ours for many years,” says Jeff Dykhuizen, a producer and director at Manley Films who oversaw the production. “We were thrilled to grow that relationship with an innovative project like The Copper Queen Film. Most audiences haven’t been able to see live performances for a long time at this point, so it was an opportunity to give them the gift of art.”
A Haunting Story
The Copper Queen Film tells the haunting true tale of Julia Lowell, whose ghost famously roams Room 315, the site of her tragic death at The Copper Queen Hotel in the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. The opera is a period romance thriller that takes place in two distinct time periods.
The complexity of the story and the settings created exciting creative challenges for the entire creative team. Collaboration was emphasized from the start. We never skimp on preproduction—and with a complex project such as this one, it was even more critical. Over months of weekly meetings, the team mapped out a plan to turn the opera’s story of murder, betrayal, and haunting into a compelling work of cinema.
With COVID-19 still active, the safety of performers and crew was the number-one concern. Fortunately, we were ready. “We care not only about the cast and crew but about the family members they go back home to,” says Dykhuizen. “We developed comprehensive safety protocols at the beginning of the pandemic, which were proven during a national infomercial for U-Haul in June of 2020. Over a three-week shoot with 80 cast members and 30 crew, we had zero instances of COVID transmission. We were ready to keep our partners at Arizona Opera safe during The Copper Queen.”
The Arizona Opera’s Roma and Raymond Wittcoff Black Box theater was transformed into Room 315 of the Copper Queen Hotel. To allow for a variety of camera angles and movements, the set was designed with removable walls. With only four shooting days to pull off a feature-length, three-camera production, intensive planning and rehearsals were critical.
Planning Makes Perfect
This close collaboration built a bridge between the worlds of film and opera and ensured the best use of limited shooting time. For example, lighting teams from both organizations collaborated to preserve the theatrical atmosphere while meeting the technical requirements of film. “Rehearsal was our boot camp for the shoot,” says Dykhuizen. “We practiced set changes, costume changes, all the details that go into a smooth production. We even found opportunities to get actual shots during the rehearsal so we could maximize the time available during the four days set aside for filming.”
In another collaboration cornerstone, the film’s lead editor, Zack Bender, worked onsite during the shoot—only a few feet from the action. The production’s director, Crystal Manich, was able to see rough cuts of scenes quickly after shooting, ensuring the team had the right coverage for the final cut.
Of course, it was essential to capture the authentic Old West spirit that pervades the story. The Copper Queen is a real hotel in Bisbee, Arizona—the longest continuously operated lodging in the state—said to be home to several ghosts including that of Julia Lowell, the subject of the opera. “This is a true story authentic to our region,” says EJ Hernandez, director of photography at Manley Films. “Because we were making a film, we had the opportunity to add local color in ways that went beyond the walls of the theatre. We traveled to Bisbee and stayed at the Copper Queen to capture footage that gives the audience a more immersive experience.”
From Local to Global
Although the pandemic was a major challenge for performing-arts organizations of all kinds, in this case, the ingenuity of Arizona Opera and Manley Films created new opportunities. The film’s premiere took place at three theatres in Phoenix and Tuscon, and it was also made available through online streaming services.
We were thrilled to contribute our resources and expertise to realizing Arizona Opera’s ambitious vision. “Giving back to the community through the arts is a huge part of our mission,” says Jim Manley, founder and CEO of Manley Films. “To do it on this scale and bring the great work of Arizona Opera to the larger community was a dream come true.”
Dykhuizen says the hard work was more than worth it. “This was a huge project that took many months of planning and work. During that process, you’re thinking about all the moving parts day to day. When we finally got to step back and see the finished product, the reactions were incredible. Our goal is always to be a seamless extension of the client’s team, whether it’s an industrial video, a TV spot, or a feature film. With The Copper Queen Film, at the end of the day, it felt like we were a family.”