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Tiny West Edge Opera Bags Big Names With New Commissioning Project

October 20, 2020

Only a month ago, SFCV reported on the West Edge Opera Aperture project: a commissioning program with the added twist that opera lovers and audience members can subscribe to an online portal that allows you to follow the operas as they are developed, through regular reports from the creative teams and glimpses of the works in progress.

I had the idea that the curation committee would discover new creative teams eager to try something new, maybe coming fresh from work in other genres, and that is in part what they did in the 22 projects they revealed in a press announcement last week. Now, here’s the latest twist in that tale: maybe because the pandemic made a chance to win a $60,000 commission and full production seem irresistible, or maybe because West Edge’s Brian Rosen, himself a composer, is more connected than I knew, there are some seriously heavy hitter composers and librettists included in that list, not exactly tyros: composers Kamala Sankaram, Yotam Haber, Luna Pearl Woolf, and Linda Bouchard; librettists Mark Campbell, Royce Vavrek, Stephanie Fleischmann, and Lila Palmer just for starters.

Now for those of you not avidly following the development of new opera, I’ll stop name-dropping for a second and try to catch you up: Imagine if you started up a songwriting commissioning project with a few bucks you had laying under the bed, and Billie Eilish, Nick Cave, and Alicia Keys applied. That’s kind of what happened here. You may have heard of Lincoln Center, Opera America, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Beth Morrison Project’s Prototype Festival, Washington Opera, Houston Grand Opera. That’s where these leading composer-librettist teams were working before they took a flyer at a West Edge Opera commission. Put it this way: if the Metropolitan Opera did this, The New York Times would probably devote a banner headline to it on the arts page.

All of which raises a good problem. It’s totally plausible, probable really, that five or six of these teams end up with really good, eminently producible works worthy of a $60,000 commissioning prize and a performance. But there’s only one prize available right now. So I asked Rosen if the project was scalable, and he wrote back, “that’s certainly the hope. If enough people find the program interesting and valuable, our hope is that it can create a broad base of support for these sorts of projects. And we’re going to do our absolute best to make sure that happens. These are great projects and great people, and we'll do whatever we can to encourage their visions.” Better get fundraising, Brian.

In the meantime, if cool new opera and musical theater is your thing, here are a few of the possible highlights from the pool of contestants.

  •  Sankaram and Campbell (who, just by the way, won a Pulitzer Prize for writing the libretto for the opera Silent Night) are working on an adaptation of Abraham Verghese’s memoir My Own Country. The work chronicles the AIDS crisis through the eyes of an immigrant doctor in a rural Tennessee town. Sankaram is the daughter of an Indian physician who immigrated to the United States, and her own experience in conjunction with Campbell’s experience as a gay man who survived the epidemic make this a very personal story for each.

  •  Haber and Vavrek (the librettist for Breaking the Waves) are planning The Pope’s Jews, the true story of two sets of Jewish children who were abducted and converted to Catholicism, once in the 19th century and then again after the Holocaust, both times with the direct involvement of the Pope. The score will be heavily influenced by archival recordings of liturgical music of Jews living in Rome in the mid-20th century. Haber is already deeply involved in researching Jewish liturgical music in Rome, for another award-winning project.

  •  Woolf and librettist David Van Taylor (better known as a documentary filmmaker) proposed City on Fire, the story of a 1947 explosion in Texas that was the largest industrial accident in U.S. history at the time. In the aftermath of the blast, controversy erupted over the proper handling of the remains, as identification was often impossible. Can tragedy bring a people together?

  •  Composer Damien Geter (who qualifies as up-and-coming, despite being named artistic advisor for Portland Opera in July and having a major premiere scheduled for January with the Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Symphony) and librettist Lila Palmer, inspired by a 19th-century immersive cyclorama painting considered to be the virtual reality of its time, are bringing The Battle of Atlanta to life onstage. By animating the lives of the subjects of the painting as well as the lives of the painters, owners, laborers, and viewers who have been impacted by the work throughout its complex and disputed history, the team hope to create an immersive, layered, and affecting representation of America’s own complex and disputed history of racial inequality and economic injustice.

  •  Justine Chen and Stephanie Fleischmann are working with director Aya Ogawa, on Seven Sisters, a multifaceted theater piece weaving the myths and stories of Chen’s family through the decades with the myths and stories of her culture through the ages. Seven Sisters will be a chamber opera that explores how women are framed and limited by their histories and what it means to honor and acknowledge that framework while fighting to escape from its limitations.

  •  Bouchard and Georgina Escobar and director Keith Turnbull are setting about Onset Was Sudden, a spinoff of Boccaccio’s Decamaron involving early nautical flag codes as refugees from a plague express their need for spontaneous communication by sharing tales.

Look for these projects and 16 others on West Edge Opera’s Aperture website.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.