Category Archives: New Opera & Performance

Leah Stein, Dance Alchemist

LSCD 2 crop Leah Stein, a mas­ter of site-spe­cif­ic chore­og­ra­phy, is known for cre­at­ing out­door dances that work a kind of alche­my on the places where they hap­pen. She pro­ceeds inclu­sive­ly, allow­ing her dancers, the audi­ence, the place itself, and ran­dom ele­ments includ­ing passers­by and even the weath­er, to come togeth­er into a new kind of com­mu­nal zone.

In TURBINE, the col­lab­o­ra­tive piece cre­at­ed with the Mendelssohn Club to mark the 200th anniver­sary of Philadelphia’s his­toric Fair­mount Water Work’s com­plex, we in the audi­ence fol­lowed the fif­teen dancers and sev­er­al dozen singers as they moved through the out­door site, and some­times sur­round­ed us. Immer­sion was a fit­ting strat­e­gy for this place, once an ear­ly-indus­tri­al mar­vel that sup­plied clean water to the city, and now an eeri­ly beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of open Greek-Revival struc­tures, cliffs, trees and lawn set between the Philadel­phia Muse­um and the Schuylkill Riv­er.

Begin­ning in a grove of trLSDC1 smees, the dancers and singers appeared with­out fan­fare among the audi­ence, offer­ing sim­ple arc­ing ges­tures and short, over­lap­ping musi­cal phras­es. We fol­lowed them as they moved across the grass, entered a river­side gaze­bo, and then made their way along a short pal­isade to a wide plaza. The dancers, in bright orange, and the singers in blue-green vests or scarves, seemed to be mak­ing a new map of the place while mov­ing across the sur­face it described.

Writ­ers includ­ing Charles Dick­ens and Mark Twain vis­it­ed the renowned Water Works in their time, and com­pos­er Byron Au Yong culled haiku-like frag­ments from their descrip­tions to cre­ate flex­i­ble son­ic mod­ules. Au Yong, who has made site-based work before, allowed the singers some lib­er­ty in the tim­ing of their own phras­es, which inter­wove, some­times fad­ing in the air, some­times res­onat­ing like depth charges. For the choir mem­bers of the Mendelssohn Club, who have worked with Stein before, the piece offered a unique­ly chal­leng­ing adven­ture, and we felt their brav­ery as they bal­anced walk­ing and expres­sive ges­tures with out­door singing. Mean­while, the dancers held the space like sentries—moving, or often still; offered rit­u­als of pour­ing water; and danced, all with nev­er-flag­ging con­cen­tra­tion.

Dancers and singers on the plaza
Dancers and singers on the plaza

As we attend­ed to what was hap­pen­ing, the site came to life around the per­form­ers. Stand­ing in the ear­ly evening light, I was struck by the uncom­mon grace­ful­ness of this place, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly felt it as it is right now: a place ringed by parked cars and traf­fic noise, part of a liv­ing city.

Expe­ri­enc­ing a work by Leah Stein, I’ve found, has after­ef­fects. Some good art does this—by desta­bi­liz­ing our per­cep­tion, it makes us see dif­fer­ent­ly. It may be part­ly the shock of dis­place­ment into an unex­pect­ed venue that inten­si­fies our atten­tion, push­ing us into the present moment (like com­ing on a flash-mob per­for­mance, which may be a new folk form of site-spe­cif­ic dance). But her out­door events, although large-scale, are anti-spec­ta­cles, induc­ing a sense of won­der through an almost hyp­not­ic sense of height­ened recep­tiv­i­ty. After the last min­gling of per­form­ers and audi­ence on the plaza, we left trans­formed, released into the sur­round­ings and sud­den­ly see­ing the col­ors of dusk as more sat­u­rat­ed, the sounds more crisp, and every move­ment as a sig­nal.


TURBINE was per­formed on June 28, 2015 at the Fair­mount Water Works. 

Leah Stein Dance Com­pa­ny

Mendelssohn Club of Philadel­phia


More women in opera?

Giulia Grisi as Norma, 1844
From an engrav­ing of Giu­lia Grisi as Nor­ma, 1844, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

With all the great women’s roles in opera, from Aida to Nor­ma to Tosca, bring­ing up the issue of increas­ing women’s role in opera could seem like beg­ging the ques­tion. Or like the set­up for a punch line—how many sopra­nos do you need to put on an opera? But at the recent Opera Amer­i­ca con­fer­ence, held ear­li­er this month in Wash­ing­ton D.C., a ses­sion on Women in Arts Lead­er­ship drew about 100 peo­ple, most of them women, for an ener­getic dis­cus­sion prompt­ed by ques­tions like: Why are there so few women lead­ing opera com­pa­nies? Why are most of the new operas pro­duced still writ­ten by men? If more women could make deci­sions, would the sub­jects of new operas change somehow—maybe fea­tur­ing more parts for women?

The all-women pan­el, includ­ing three opera com­pa­ny direc­tors, was eager to move past such ques­tions and start act­ing on solu­tions. One pan­elist sug­gest­ed a goal of reach­ing thir­ty per­cent par­tic­i­pa­tion in each cat­e­go­ry of opera pro­duc­tion, from direc­tors to com­posers, set design­ers and more—a lev­el that’s con­sid­ered a tip­ping point after which fur­ther changes can begin to take care of them­selves.

Opera Amer­i­ca has already begun one strate­gic ini­tia­tive: offer­ing com­mis­sion­ing grants to women com­posers, and to opera com­pa­nies will­ing to help pro­duce their work. I was there at the con­fer­ence with one of the sev­en recent grant win­ners, Kit­ty Brazel­ton, a fan­tas­tic com­pos­er and an old friend from col­lege. We’re work­ing togeth­er on a new opera project, and the grant she received will make pos­si­ble a work­shop per­for­mance this fall, in New York. We’ve both worked on opera projects before, with col­lab­o­ra­tors who hap­pened to be men—although the first music project Kit­ty and I worked on, play­ing in a four-piece folk-rock band she orga­nized in our fresh­man year, was also an all-women ven­ture.

Will our project, called Art of Mem­o­ry, be fla­vored dif­fer­ent­ly some­how because of our gen­der? Since the sub­ject is the strug­gles of two male saints—St. Augus­tine and St. Ambrose, who knew each oth­er in Milan in the 4th century—it wouldn’t seem to be nudg­ing any gen­der shift in sub­ject mat­ter. But Kit­ty is writ­ing both lead­ing parts to be sung by women. In fact, she plans to sing St. Ambrose her­self, con­trast­ing her rock-mez­zo vocals with more tra­di­tion­al opera vocal style. Very cool!

Women have tra­di­tion­al­ly played some male roles, called “trouser roles,” often when the male char­ac­ter is young. Our project’s cross-cast­ing is meant as a way to shake up the audience’s encrust­ed ideas about two long-revered saints. In my last opera project, Judg­ment of Midas, Kam­ran Ince rewrote the part of the god Pan for a sopra­no. Anoth­er com­pos­er, Melis­sa Dun­phy, used a sim­i­lar approach in her 2009 piece, The Gon­za­les Can­ta­ta, with music set to the tran­scribed tes­ti­mo­ny of for­mer Attor­ney Gen­er­al Alber­to Gon­za­les before the Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee. Dun­phy neat­ly flipped the cast­ing of the piece, so that the near­ly all-male par­tic­i­pants in the orig­i­nal hear­ings were all sung by sopra­nos; only Sen. Dianne Fein­stein was sung by a man. In this case, the num­ber of sopra­nos need­ed to put on an ora­to­rio, at least, was four­teen.

Change is hap­pen­ing in opera, and we don’t know where it will lead. It’s excit­ing to be part of that.




Remembering Sun Ra

Limited-edition press of a Sun Ra remix by Brendan Lynch/deUS
Lim­it­ed-edi­tion press of a Sun Ra remix by Bren­dan Lynch/deUS

Space is the Place—the wild space-fan­ta­sy film star­ring Sun Ra, the leg­endary exper­i­men­tal jazz artist—came out in 1974. It fol­lows Sun Ra and his Arkestra as they trav­el to anoth­er plan­et, where they hope to cre­ate an off-earth home for African Amer­i­cans. Back on Earth, they do bat­tle with a pimp-over­lord over the fate of their mis­sion, and play some fan­tas­tic music.

This Fri­day, Bower­bird will screen a new­ly restored, dig­i­tal ver­sion of this one-of-a-kind film at the Rotun­da in Philadel­phia. The event cel­e­brates (just a lit­tle late) the movie’s 40th anniver­sary, and the cen­te­nary of Sun Ra’s “arrival,” as he called it, in 1914 in Alaba­ma, as Her­man Poole Blount. He set­tled in Philadel­phia for the final chap­ter of a long and pro­lif­ic career, “leav­ing” in 1993.

I saw Sun Ra and his Arkestra in the ear­ly 1970s, a lit­tle before Space is the Place pre­miered. I was a col­lege fresh­man, and I’d nev­er heard of him. A friend who was a musi­cian took me to a lit­tle club in West Philadel­phia that looked like a bar on the outside—maybe it was a bar. Crowd­ed in at small tables, we sat just feet away from a pha­lanx of psy­che­del­ic Pharaohs: the mem­bers of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, dressed in shiny, many-col­ored robes, and head­gear that includ­ed some tin­foil. They pro­ceed­ed to blast me out of any thought I’d ever had about music and what it could be, build­ing to a wail­ing, clang­ing, pound­ing wall of sound, even while the musi­cians seemed to know exact­ly what they were doing. That night the Arkestra played their guts out, mak­ing sounds that seemed devised to lift the club into earth orbit. Sun Ra may have intend­ed to give black peo­ple a sense of tran­scen­dence and galac­tic-lev­el free­dom, but he also made room for some­one like me, a white teenaged girl who’d stud­ied clas­si­cal music, to sense the far hori­zons he was aim­ing toward.

That night became a touch­stone for me. Sun Ra’s join­ing of cos­tumed spec­ta­cle and no-holds-barred play­ing made a kind of alche­my hap­pen, and over the years I mea­sured oth­er exper­i­men­tal music and per­for­mance against it. No ques­tion, Sun Ra achieved seri­ous regard in the jazz world, even as he influ­enced many oth­er musi­cians, from George Clin­ton to Deep Pur­ple to Phish. He may not have man­aged to trans­port his peo­ple to anoth­er plan­et, but he made music that sug­gest­ed it was pos­si­ble.

Space is the Place, screen­ing as part of Bowerbird’s GATE @ The Rotun­da

Fri­day Jan­u­ary 16, 8 pm / 4014 Wal­nut Street, Philadel­phia, PA

Intro­duc­tion by Sun Ra biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed / Free / more info at


Opera, Real and Surreal

Three operas featured at New Works Forum
Three new operas show­cased at Opera America’s New Works Forum: l-r, The Sum­mer King, Judg­ment of Midas, Dog Days

Opera per­mits us to go into a world that is not real.”

This was spo­ken by Nicole Paiement, artis­tic direc­tor of Opera Par­al­lèle, about halfway through a pan­el dis­cus­sion of sto­ry­telling in opera at Opera America’s New Works Forum, held last week in New York. I was there because Judg­ment of Midas, the new opera I’m involved with, was sched­uled for a show­case performance—an excerpt with singers and piano.

I heard these words with a sense of relief and recog­ni­tion. After this, oth­ers in the room acknowl­edged that many opera com­pa­nies have got­ten into a “qua­si-nat­u­ral­is­tic groove,” devel­op­ing new operas that share with much of tra­di­tion­al opera a straight-ahead, scene-by-scene nar­ra­tive arc.

It’s been almost forty years since the 1976 pre­miere of Ein­stein on the Beach, with its shock­ing mix of enig­mat­ic text, Robert Wilson’s hyp­not­ic move­ment and the propul­sive sound of Philip Glass—and it’s been eighty years since Vir­gil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, sung to a blithe­ly out-there libret­to by Gertrude Stein. Since the ground­break­ing Ein­stein, new opera and music-the­ater have staked out a wider range of pos­si­bil­i­ty for the sto­ry, or in some cas­es, the text that goes with the music. Operas like John Adams’ Doc­tor Atom­ic, about the first atom­ic blast, expand the sto­ry with diver­sions into poet­ry and myth, while Anna Nicole bor­rows TV talk-show for­mat and flash­backs to cre­ate a large-scale ver­sion of the would-be Pop god­dess.

At the New Works Forum, Nicole Paiement described an upcom­ing pro­duc­tion planned for her Opera Par­al­lèle in San Fran­cis­co, a mash-up of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel and the Baroque-era Les Mamelles de Tiré­sius by Poulenc, which sounds—well, I can’t even imag­ine how this will turn out, which makes it pret­ty inter­est­ing. In some ways, a lot of new opera has more in com­mon with Baroque opera, with its sto­ries of myth­i­cal heroes, gods and god­dess­es. With Judg­ment of Midas, the libret­to I wrote offers a place where Greek gods inter­act with present-day humans. In the libret­to for Vio­let Fire, I tried to cre­ate a dream-like space in which the events, peo­ple and visions expe­ri­enced by the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la could inter­min­gle.

Peo­ple still respond to the big char­ac­ters and pas­sion­ate sto­ries that are the stuff of tra­di­tion­al opera. But it may be that now, with our lives marked by a dizzy­ing inter­play of the vir­tu­al and real, we need art forms to reflect that mul­ti­plic­i­ty of experience—the feel­ing of liv­ing in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties. That kind of mul­ti­plic­i­ty is cod­ed into the struc­ture of opera, with its syn­the­sis of sto­ry, move­ment, visu­als and the human voice at its most pow­er­ful. You could see this mul­ti-lay­ered approach as stretch­ing back to the ear­li­est human sto­ry­telling, which com­bined rhythm, move­ment, cos­tume and voice to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence of a greater, expand­ed real­i­ty shared by humans and gods.

I came away from the New Works Forum recharged and inspired by the work of some gift­ed artists in the field, and the ded­i­ca­tion of the opera pro­fes­sion­als who want to see new work hap­pen. Here’s to the mak­ing of crazy, weird new operas that help us make sense of our strange, fast-chang­ing world.


How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s some­thing about the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la that has strong­ly attract­ed artists—much more than his arch-rival Edi­son, let’s say. Tesla’s amaz­ing life and grand visions have pulled artis­tic cre­ations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, nov­els and sto­ries, film and video. I know about this first­hand, because it hap­pened to me. Dis­cov­er­ing his sto­ry led me to write a libret­to for what became the opera Vio­let Fire.

Niko­la Tes­la, born in 1856 to Ser­bian par­ents in Croa­t­ia, was a vision­ary scientist/inventor who helped cre­ate the bedrock of our tech­no­log­i­cal world, with his ground­break­ing dis­cov­er­ies in elec­tric­i­ty, radio, robot­ics and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. His intense stream of visu­al­iza­tions led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull elec­tri­cal ener­gy from the upper atmos­phere, still sound like sci­ence fic­tion. He was a charis­mat­ic fig­ure who moved through New York’s Gild­ed Age high soci­ety, befriend­ing Mark Twain and oth­ers, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire
From top: Niko­la Tes­la as an old man; a still from Vio­let Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s sto­ry knocked me over. How could he not be uni­ver­sal­ly known? His visions seemed like those of a mys­tic, yet they had led to inven­tions that have had glob­al effects on how we live. With his strange, out­sized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to por­tray him. I cen­tered the sto­ry on Tesla’s rela­tion­ship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of pow­er­ful light. Vio­let Fire was brought to life by the beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing music of Jon Gib­son, and the con­tri­bu­tions of direc­tor Ter­ry O’Reilly, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Nina Winthrop, and video design­ers Sarah Drury and Jen Sim­mons. Exact­ly sev­en years ago, on Niko­la Tesla’s 150th birth­day, my col­lab­o­ra­tors and I had the great hon­or of see­ing the pre­miere of Vio­let Fire at the Nation­al The­ater in Bel­grade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tes­la. A large-scale opera, Light­ning in His Hand, has been mount­ed in Hobart, Tas­ma­nia. Melis­sa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recent­ly per­formed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jar­musch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tes­la is redis­cov­ered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in art­forms we haven’t yet imag­ined. Hap­py Birth­day, Niko­la Tes­la.


Midas in Milwaukee

Kamran Ince conducting the premiere of Judgment of Midas, at UWM's Zelazo Center
Kam­ran Ince con­duct­ing the pre­miere of Judg­ment of Midas, at UWM’s Zela­zo Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. All pho­tos here by Susan Span­gler.
Pan, sung by Jennifer Goltz  (to left of Kamran Ince), during the music contest
Pan, sung by Jen­nifer Goltz (to left of Kam­ran Ince — yes, the part was cross-cast), dur­ing the music con­test.
Left to right: singers Gregory Gerbrandt and Abigail Fischer, Miriam and Kamran clapping for the orchestra
Left to right: singers Philip Horst, Gre­go­ry Ger­brandt and Abi­gail Fis­ch­er, Miri­am and Kam­ran clap­ping for the orches­tra. The pro­ject­ed image is by Craw­ford Gree­newalt Jr., depict­ing the par­tic­i­pants in the leg­endary music con­test as an ancient mosa­ic.

Judg­ment of Midas pre­miered in Mil­wau­kee last week, and I’m still buzzing. It was an incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence. Kevin Stal­heim, who leads Present Music, and Jill Anna Polasek of Mil­wau­kee Opera The­ater, suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing this won­der­ful pro­duc­tion feel like an opera, even though it was “semi-staged.” Kam­ran Ince, the com­pos­er, con­duct­ed the Present Music ensem­ble, expand­ed to small orches­tra size and includ­ing five Turk­ish musi­cians. The soloists lined up con­cert-style to sing, but each one cre­at­ed their char­ac­ters in place: Fran­ny and Theo, the con­tem­po­rary cou­ple vis­it­ing the ancient ruins of Sardis; the guide Melik/King Midas; and the Gods Apol­lo, Pan and Tmo­lus. Pro­ject­ed images and dig­i­tal light­ing on the Zela­zo Cen­ter stage gave the per­for­mances a visu­al pres­ence and oper­at­ic scale.

I felt the piece com­ing alive, and the audi­ence being pulled in to it, as Kamran’s thrilling, high-octane music, the sto­ry and words, the beau­ti­ful singing and play­ing, and the visu­als came togeth­er into a sin­gle whole. I’m so grate­ful to every­one who gave their best to this pro­duc­tion. Both nights were cap­tured on audio and video, and we are look­ing ahead, hop­ing Midas will con­tin­ue to devel­op and be seen again.


Touching on Midas

It’s just a week now before the pre­miere of Judg­ment of Midas, the opera I’ve been work­ing on with Kam­ran Ince. It’s hap­pen­ing in Mil­wau­kee, in a pro­duc­tion with Present Music and the Mil­wau­kee Opera The­ater. I’m real­ly excit­ed, look­ing for­ward to see­ing how it’s been imag­ined, and hear­ing the com­plete score for the first time. This is my sec­ond libret­to, and I know I will feel that amaz­ing sen­sa­tion again, of hear­ing words I’ve writ­ten come alive through the music.

For me, Judg­ment of Midas began when I met Kam­ran in Philadel­phia after a per­for­mance of his Strange Stone by Relâche. I found Kamran’s music rav­ish­ing, with beau­ti­ful tex­tures and a sweep­ing ener­gy. I told him how much I liked it, and in the con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lowed he men­tioned he had received a com­mis­sion to write an opera, but had no libret­tist yet. My first opera, Vio­let Fire, had had its first per­for­mance at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty just a few weeks before.

Describ­ing the project, Kam­ran explained that it was inspired by an ancient myth, a sto­ry con­nect­ed with the arche­o­log­i­cal site of Sardis—part of the king­dom of Lydia, and now in west­ern Turkey. My anten­nae went off: I had vis­it­ed Sardis a few years before and remem­bered it vivid­ly. Thanks to Steve, my hus­band, who has a life­long pas­sion for antiq­ui­ty, we’ve been to Turkey sev­er­al times, that last time with our son Ethan.

Sardis sits on a high plain. You see the Gre­co-Roman city ris­ing up out of an emp­ty field, and far­ther away, the huge bur­ial mounds that dat­ed to an even ear­li­er time. It’s one of those places like Stonehenge—so qui­et, you can hear the breeze going past your ears.

It’s also the place where Dr. Craw­ford Gree­newalt, Jr. spent every sum­mer for decades, super­vis­ing the arche­o­log­i­cal dig. It was Greenie’s idea (that’s what every­one calls him) to com­mis­sion an opera based on the sto­ry of King Midas—not the Gold­en Touch, but the less well-known sequel, known from Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses.

The sto­ry that Gree­nie sug­gest­ed to Kam­ran involved a music con­test. It goes like this: after Midas has washed off the Gold­en Touch, he retires to the woods, fol­low­ing the god Pan. Pan chal­lenges Apol­lo to a musi­cal con­test, a sort of Lydia’s Got Tal­ent, to be judged by the local moun­tain god, Tmo­lus. Midas protests when Apol­lo is declared the win­ner, which leads Apol­lo to pun­ish him by giv­ing him a pair of ass­es’ ears.

Full dis­clo­sure: I am a mythol­o­gy nerd. Being able to dive into this sto­ry, with its range of divini­ties from the most sub­lime to the least, and play with the themes it throws off, was a great attrac­tion. Midas was a real king, and is his­tor­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed to the even ear­li­er Phry­gian king­dom. But leg­end said that he washed him­self clean near Sardis, in the riv­er Pactolus—the source of gold for wealthy Lydia.

One of the gifts of this project was meet­ing Gree­nie, a remark­able man who fol­lowed his pas­sions for arche­ol­o­gy and music with­out stint­ing. If he were still alive, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t want any fuss made over his cen­tral role in the project. For­tu­nate­ly he was able to see the con­cert per­for­mance of Midas in New York in 2011. But I’m sure he’ll be with us in Mil­wau­kee too.