Tag Archives: new opera

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.




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.