We were recently introduced to Pepito, an animated dog operator, and we found her adorable, touching and inspiring. As we are both opera fans and supporters of the rescue, we were particularly impressed and we were curious to see how it came about. We reached out to the co-founder of the New Opera West Company, Emily Thebaut, who was happy to tell us the story of how it came about. We are sure that you will find both the opera and its message of what it means to be “the right dog” that will get across to you. Bravo!
The bark: Tell us about your opera company and the backstory of this dog opera project. How did that happen? Whose idea was it? Has your company produced other animation / video projects?
Emily Thebaut: New Opera West, which I founded with composer Mark Weiser, is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating new operatic works. We strive to involve multiple art forms (in this case animation and opera) in creating a new type of opera that explores current issues and includes stories that provide opportunities for different artists and most importantly, attract new operatic audiences.
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I heard about Pepito from the composer Nicolas Lell Benavides, who is a good friend of mine. When he played it for me, I immediately fell in love with it; After adopting two dogs myself, I connected with the story. From then on, I knew I wanted New Opera West to produce it. I never thought that I could combine my two passions in life – dogs and opera – but I found a way!
I originally planned to do a live personal performance of Pepito that people could bring their pets to and invite a local animal shelter to hold an adoption event after the performance. But when Covid-19 hit, I had to think about how to present the opera in a virtual format. I’ve always wanted to create an animated opera and thought Pepito in particular would be a perfect candidate for it since one of the main characters is a dog.
This was New Opera West’s first animated opera, but it definitely won’t be our last.
The bark: Pepito’s “right dog” theme is particularly apt. How did you develop it
Emily Thebaut: Pepito was written by librettist Marella Martin Koch and composer Nicolas Lell Benavides for the American Opera Initiative of the Washington National Opera. It premiered at the Kennedy Center during the 2018-19 season.
While producing the animated version, I worked with Marella and Nicolas to find the specific clip we wanted to use and then put together an animation team. Nicolas and I are both PhD students at the University of Southern California, which has a strong film school. That’s why we looked for the animators there. In the end we had three USC alumni: Esperanza Guevara, Connor Jacobs and Chun Chun Chang.
Although I always knew that I wanted to work with an animal rescue service for this production, it was only in the final phase that I began to think about which organizations would be a good fit for me. I was absolutely delighted when Muttville replied. Since Pepito is an older guard dog, the fact that Muttville works with older animals fits together perfectly. After attending some of Muttville’s events in the past and knowing how fun and creative they are, I thought this might fit in really well.
The bark: Please let us know the collaboration that is required to create such a work.
Emily Thebaut: As I mentioned, the opera was already written, and the composer had been awarded a scholarship last year to put together a world-class recording of the work with singers from Washington National Opera and instrumentalists from USC. Nicolas, Marella and I were very involved in the process, which took around seven months in total. After Chun Chun Chang did the character design, Marella and I wrote the specific stage directions and then Esperanza Guevara and her husband Connor Jacobs did the animation. It was really a team effort.
The bark: Has anyone in your organization adopted a rescue dog?
Emily Thebaut: Yes! I took over my first Chihuahua mix, Nala, from SF SPCA in 2014 and my second, Milo, three years ago. I couldn’t imagine my life without my dogs; You’ve changed it dramatically for the better. This summer, I accompanied our treasurer to the Pug Nation Rescue in Los Angeles to adopt her first dog. And our board vice president has two rescue dogs that are as cute as possible. The composer Nicolas also adopted a real Pepito shortly after writing the opera. In LA, my co-founder Mark Weiser and his partner rescue and care for cats from a local animal shelter. Pretty much everyone in our organization has adopted animals!
The bark: What message do you hope the viewers of Pepito will take with them?
Emily Thebaut: People often want a certain type of dog – a certain size, breed, age, color, etc. In fact, I was one of those people. When I first moved to San Francisco I was obsessed with French Bulldogs and thought this was my first dog.
However, when I escorted my friend to the shelter so she could adopt a dog, I looked at my Nala, an older Chihuahua mix, and we just had an instant connection. I am so grateful that I had this experience, that I was not looking for the “right dog” or at least for what I imagined as the “right dog”. I have found the “right dog” for me and I am so grateful because I couldn’t imagine my life without her.
When I interviewed Sherri Franklin, the founder of Muttville, she said the same thing – that so many people are looking for a Chihuahua but go with a lab.
I hope Pepito shows the viewers that every dog has a unique personality and that if you are looking to adopt, you are open to meeting all types of dogs, not just puppies and purebreds. Look for the animal with whom you have this “connection” and who will be the “right dog” for you.
I also hope people realize that older dogs have so much love and life to give and how amazing Muttville is, from working with older animals to their events and the role they play in their community. I hope to work with them again on future projects!
“Pepito” is an animated dog operator from New Opera West on Vimeo.