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.