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La Jolla-based Bodhi Tree Concerts staying virtual for filmed one-night-only ‘Mad King’

Donnie Eastman turns the camera on Walter DuMelle as President Trump for a filmed presentation of "8 Songs for a Mad King."
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Like every performing arts organization, the La Jolla-based Bodhi Tree Concerts series has had to get creative amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The concerts, typically held in venues such as St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, have migrated to a YouTube channel, and its award-winning presentation of “8 Songs for a Mad King” is being filmed for one-time streaming.

Star Walter DuMelle and the production crew (including Bodhi Tree Concerts co-organizer Diana DuMelle, Walter’s wife) were masked and socially distanced in the hall at St. James by-the-Sea in La Jolla to film Sept. 12-13, except when Walter DuMelle was singing. Husband-and-wife videographers Donnie and Jen Eastman were behind the camera, while son Stone and volunteer Evan Olow helped behind the scenes.

“I think every performing arts organization has had to grapple with — in their own unique ways — how to stay relevant and adapt [during the pandemic],” Walter DuMelle said. “Fairly early on, at the last in-person meeting of the board of directors, we decided the rest of the season was not going to be in person. Things were just too uncertain. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with the means we have to offer programming that was planned, but in a new digital way?’ For us, that meant coming up with a way to craft our concepted concerts in a video format that would still use our artists but highlight them in a new and engaging way.”

To bring “8 Songs for a Mad King” to life, orchestral musicians performed their respective pieces in their homes, and the footage will be merged to make the ensemble.

“The mad King George talked to birds, which gave him suggestions of what to do, so our instrumentalists are in their own bird cages,” Walter DuMelle said with a smile. (Camera trickery and sleight of hand created the effect of performers being in bird cages.)

For pieces that had to be recorded together, Bodhi Tree Concerts used spaces such as the La Jolla Community Center’s outdoor patio for social distancing.

Interspersed is Walter DuMelle as President Trump, performing pieces based on statements the president has made.

Walter DuMelle stars as President Trump in Bodhi Tree Concerts' presentation of “8 Songs for a Mad King.”
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“The original piece was composed by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and took the words and letters of King George III, who went mad during his reign way back when,” he said. “So when we knew we wanted to do this piece, we wanted to make it more contemporary.”

The first iteration of “8 Songs for a Mad King” was performed in 2017 — also using Trump as its subject — at the San Diego International Fringe Festival and won Best of Fest and Best Male Performer in an Opera or Musical.

“Audiences and critics suggested we bring it back,” Diana DuMelle said.

“When this work came out, it was an instrumental piece and extended vocal techniques, which is a fancy way of saying singers doing things with their voice other than what you would normally hear them do,” Walter DuMelle said. “So it is one of those pivotal pieces in the operatic canon that opened up new opportunities for that genre. It’s not just pretty singing.”

Once completed, the production will be streamed just once, on Oct. 30, on a platform to be determined.

Donnie, Jen and Stone Eastman, Diana DuMelle and Evan Olow surround Walter DuMelle on the set of “8 Songs for a Mad King.”
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

While it will be offered for free, donations will be accepted, Diana DuMelle said.

“Bodhi Tree Concerts features exclusively San Diego performers, so it’s our way of supporting local artists during the pandemic,” she said. “We are going to need the support of the community to keep this going. We are offering this for free, along with other concerts on our youtube.com channel. … But for those that can donate, we can’t go forever without any income.”

In a typical season, Bodhi Tree partners with local charities and donates the proceeds from each concert to a different
beneficiary. Over seven seasons, Bodhi Tree has presented more than 30 concerts and donated more than $25,000 to about 30 charitable organizations, including Mama’s Kitchen, Voices for Children, Erase Poverty and Foundation for Women.

Learn more at bodhitreeconcerts.org