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Long Beach Opera Presents 20 Premieres in “Songbook”

November 10, 2020

Long Beach Opera (LBO) is bringing it all together this weekend. The company hosts its big event of the fall season, “2020 Songbook,” on Sunday, Nov. 15. And with “Songbook,” LBO has hit on a concept that captures all the ups and downs for classical musicians in a pandemic-altered year.

Twenty world-premiere pieces, all from up-and-coming composers, make up the heart of the Nov. 15 online program. The result is not only a slate of LBO commissions, explained Executive Director and CEO Jennifer Rivera, “but the creation of support and a performance platform for 20 fresh voices.” It’s an approach that other adventurous opera companies have taken recently and an unexpected upside in a year of canceled performances: the chance to foster new work.

A backbone of artistic and financial support has helped “Songbook” happen. LBO matched each of the 20 commissioned musicians, who range from undergraduates to young professionals on the cusp, with a composer-mentor. Anthony Davis, Annie Gosfield, David Lang, George Lewis, and Du Yun — all established voices in the opera world, with some major productions in Southern California in recent years — helped guide the writing process. And LBO set the prompt: the “Songbook” works are three to five minutes long, scored for voice, and reflect on an event or experience from 2020.

LBO found the extra support in an existing model. “Songbook” is an extension of the company’s UnGalas series, which debuted last year. The basic idea: instead of buying a table, donors commission a new piece of music. Long Beach Opera isn’t doing away with the gala festivities entirely, though; countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo emcees the Nov. 15 event, virtually. And as with previous UnGalas — “Divalicious Drag-Off,” “Sirens of the Sea,” and more — LBO is putting the emphasis on underrepresented voices, an approach reflected in the 20 world-premiere works.

For their part, the commissioned composers have taken the “Songbook” idea and run with it. Los Angeles native Benjamin Beckman has a piece about climate change. UC Davis student Aida Shirazi is taking full advantage of the recorded online format; the video accompanying her piece incorporates CGI animation. And Bay Area composer Theresa Wong started with a simple conceit, breath, which has expanded to include the pandemic, another year of wildfires, and the Black Lives Matter protests.

For the complete “2020 Songbook” program, and for tickets, visit Long Beach Opera’s online portal for the event.

Peter Feher is an editor at SFCV. He can be reached at [email protected].