I Screwed Up the Future (2016)

I Screwed Up the Future is an opera for video.

In 2016 the world still suffers from the after effects of massive power outages, food shortages, and nuclear explosions caused by Y2K. Cassandra, a computer programmer, builds a time machine and travels back to 1996 to prevent it. But will she succeed? And would things be better if Y2K had not happened?

I Screwed Up the Future premiered May 6-7, 2016 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Katie Eastburn, voice
Sasha Zamler-Carhart, voice
Tomas Cruz, voice
Jessica Pavone, bass guitar
Jason Cady, pedal steel and modular synthesizer
Clay Holley, sound design and mixing
Malik Isasis, cinematography

"Only Mr. Cady’s “I Screwed Up the Future” draws on standard techniques of opera, however playfully. This charming fantasy is set in 2016. The world is still enduring the disastrous aftermath of Y2K: power outages, food shortages, self-ignited nuclear explosions. An intrepid programmer, Cassandra (Katie Eastburn), builds a time machine to return to 1996 and tweak computer networks to prevent it, which she does. But when she returns, the world has changed, including the lives of her friends. All the vocal lines skirt rhythmically square recitative and tender arioso, sung over a subdued disco track. The stylistic sameness, at once drably comic and spacey, enhances the allure of the opera, which in this case is one."

—Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

"Best of all was I Screwed Up the Future, Jason Cady’s deadpan sci-fi comedy about a bungled attempt to fix the Y2K bug. His meandering, laid-back dance track accompaniment exactly captured the mood of the hipster time travelers whose best-laid plans result in the annihilation of Tower Records."

—James Jordan, New York Observer

"Making video operas you could watch on your phone occurred to Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch a few years ago in a bar in Brooklyn, at a meeting of Experiments in Opera, the company they began in 2010. Cady, Siegel, and Welch are composers. Cady plays pedal steel, Siegel plays jazz drums and vibraphone, and Welch plays bagpipes and is getting a doctorate in composition at Yale. “Opera’s one of the few places that all the weird traditions we come from can fit into,” Welch said. They formed Experiments in Opera to produce one another’s works, so that they would feel less isolated. Over the next five years, mostly using grants, they commissioned forty-five works from thirty-five composers, themselves among them.

At the bar, they made a list of projects to undertake, one of which was to write short operas meant to be filmed rather than performed, meaning films in which the dialogue was sung, rather than stage presentations that were filmed. They hadn’t filmed any operas before, and they didn’t know what the operas would look like in that form, or if people would respond to them. The five operas on their first program, “Video Operas,” are shorter than twenty minutes apiece. Among them is an opera by Siegel called “Tea Before You Go,” which is about a terminally ill man who visits a therapist to prepare for his end and is given psilocybin as an aid to self-expression, something Siegel had read about in a study. Siegel used the guest bedroom in his apartment as the therapist’s office.

Recently they taped scenes for another of the operas, “I Screwed Up the Future,” by Cady, in Long Island City. Before the taping, they sat in a booth at the Dorian Café, at 10-01 Fiftieth Avenue. Siegel is tall and thin and has glasses and a beard; Cady is shorter, with glasses and a studious manner; and Welch has a beard and a helmet of blond hair. Traditionally, operas take a long time to produce. “You make a couple of scenes, you showcase them, three or four years pass before you might have the money to finish it,” Siegel said. “Plus, singers want to sing in big rooms and play beautiful roles and wear beautiful costumes and have big orchestras behind them. We’re operating from the perspective of composers, so our values are different. We’re really interested in what we can do in the next six months.”

“We don’t really believe that opera has to be three hours long,” Cady said. “That’s an eighteenth-, nineteenth-century idea. It would be as if only huge Russian novels existed, and no one wrote short stories.”

“We believe in the Shakespearean world, in a nutshell,” Welch said. “That the scale of opera can work at any length: narrative arc or a fragment of a narrative arc.”

Cady’s opera was the last to be filmed. “I’m behind, because my apartment was destroyed in a fire in November,” he said. “The script was based around where I lived and things that I owned.” The plot involves “a woman who invents a time machine in 2016, and goes back twenty years in order to prevent Y2K. In her world, Y2K happened, and it was everything people feared it would be. The result was George Bush was President for two terms, 9/11 happened, and now people walk around like zombies glued to their cell phones. I thought of the ending first: What if someone tried to do something to correct the past and they end up ruining the world, but it’s the world we have known? What major thing could the character do? And Y2K came to mind. Since Y2K is already humorous, I had something funny to build on.”

A waiter poured coffee. “We’re shooting two scenes today,” Cady said. “One in my apartment, which is decked out to look like 1996, with an Apple laptop from 1993 that is thick and futuristic looking, and one outside. The one outside is the ending. I’m playing a guy walking out of a coffee shop taking photos of his latte, and Aaron bumps into me and spills my coffee. I’m using chocolate milk. I’m bringing two shirts, but I’m hoping we get it on the first take.”

After filming the apartment scene, which went according to plan, Cady stood outside Sweetleaf Coffee and Espresso, on the corner of Forty-eighth Avenue and Eleventh Street, by the Pulaski Bridge, with a coffee cup in his hand. The sky was overcast, making the light sympathetic. In the window of the coffee shop, a woman was staring at her phone. Siegel sideswiped Cady. When the woman looked up, he was standing with his shirt off, receiving congratulations."

—Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker