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.