This first weekend in March brings together works from some extraordinary women working in exciting new directions today in the realm of ‘opera and beyond.’ In Series hosts a Women Composers Festival with two full operas and a total of six different programs in a compressed three days. It promises to be a rare glimpse for Washington audiences to hear some exciting experiments pushing boundaries of opera and re-thinking music-theatre forms though a broad range of women’s voices and musical tastes.”
We are talking about a festival that includes an array of compositions from Hildegard von Bingen to Gabriela Ortiz, and from Louise Thalma to recent Pulitzer Prize Winner Kate Soper. We are also celebrating original voices, from 20th century lyricist Dorothy Fields to sopranos like Noelle McMurty and Maribeth Diggle who wish to think of themselves not just as interpreters but creators and curators.
Timothy Nelson, Artistic Director of In Series and curator of the festival, has chosen works and arrangements for small forces and without chorus. I asked him-
What did you want Washington audiences to “get” in bringing the festival together with this particular program of women’s creative voices?
Timothy: I wanted In Series to be part of changing what we imagine a “composer” to be…just like we want to change perceptions of what a “conductor” should be, or even an “opera singer.” In real terms, however, I want DC audiences to be exposed to music I think is extraordinary, personal, intelligent, and moving. All of the music on this festival is by women, and we are acknowledging that those voices aren’t always given platforms for celebration even though (and this is important to note) they have always been there, but, more, it is all great music that will surprise, delight, and inspire.
The program for the festival highlights different areas in which In Series, in business in the nation’s capital since 1995, has typically made work: opera and Latinx music- theater.
Timothy: Yes, there are two operas on the festival, One of these, Here Be Sirens, by Kate Soper, also captures the way In Series is constantly interrogating how spoken text and sung text can combine to make new forms of theater. This particular piece will challenge the audience’s expectations of how a piano is used, how the human voice is used, and what even is an “opera,” but all those challenges will fall away in the way the work achieves the larger goal of compelling theater.
The In Series Women Composers Festival, March 6, 7 and 8, 2020. Details and tickets
I asked singer Noelle McMurty, one of the performers in the opera, to speak about delving into Soper’s music.
Noelle: I started working two years ago on Kate’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say. It’s a really cool piece for voice and flute, as she uses “extended techniques,” meaning using your voice together with flute in lots of different ways and also including spoken text. It takes on a theme found throughout her works, that language is very tricky, that we string vowels and consonants together, but what they actually mean is very elusive. We put the meaning into them. I will be doing something from that piece in the festival’s Gala Event Friday night.
In Series has also a long commitment to LatinX music and themes. Ana Y Su Sombra, a complex, thoughtful, serious music work for families, will depart from the company’s presenting of more traditional genres. Composed by Gabriela Ortiz, one of the world’s leading composers, this is music that is tooled to ask complex questions about immigration – not from a political perspective, but from a spiritual one.
Mexican-born world composer Ortiz has certainly forged her own way as a composer of many genres, and her works are celebrated on both sides of the border. But I wondered how the other artists saw new horizons and developed their own paths.
Did you always see your path as separate and distinct from the industry’s more traditional and institutional paths (operatic /conservatory,) or what made you diverge from this?
Maribeth Diggle: Well, I was never expecting to be an opera singer. I started as someone who sang in a choir. I loved all of it, world music, sacred, secular. The discipline prepared me, and I had this structure in my mind from childhood. When I went to a conservatory, I was made aware of a career but singing was always self-exploration for me. In Europe I worked with a dance company and discovered I had more capabilities than just standing and singing. I met Alexander Oliver who said, “Why don’t you try for the Opera Academy?” I think he saw my potential. A lot of people recognized what I was before I recognized myself. I was the only soprano taken, and there I got grounded in opera. I gave it a good 5-6 years. But I think, really, I frightened everyone. People didn’t know where to place me in the opera world, and I was looking for the same experience I’d had as a child or as a co-creator with the dance company. A lot of people were happy preparing to be part of the industry serving the people on top, but that industry was not satisfying for me.
Noelle: I had always been in environments with new music so I was aware of living composers. But in my conservatory experience, engaging with new writing or exploring your instrument was not seen as important as knowing your bel canto arias, so no one really encouraged me. I moved to New York City. All along, I had become interested in things beyond just singing, like programming. I still went to a bunch of auditions but I was unhappy because I didn’t really believe in what I was singing and what people were telling me. I learned in the system I was always only “the singer” and I had to fulfill a set of expectations. It was more than just the competition, which is brutal, but I didn’t believe in the world. I have always honored the singers and especially women who have forged interesting hybrid paths for themselves. But these are not necessarily the models people talk about, the so-called success stories. When I got to Peabody I found Ah Young Hong as my teacher, and she was deeply involved with new composers and singers forging their own paths, and I saw that was a possibility. She thought I too should get involved with modern music. There was an opportunity to work with Kate Soper’s music, and my teacher recommended me. I got to look at her music, and then she came to Peabody. I found others seeking more opportunities to premiere new works and work with contemporary composers.
And you, Kate? I have always felt your music was inseparable from you the performer, so what has been your journey?
Kate Soper: I never considered myself on the path of singing. I was always a composer and my instrument piano and I wasn’t born with a particularly fine instrument so I didn’t think singing was an option for me. I was a singer-songwriter in college for many years and did the odd musical but I didn’t really start singing concert music until grad school and was in the Wet Ink Ensemble, which I’m still in. They had a lot of singer-composers in the group, including an excellent pianist. I wanted to pull my weight and was a singer and a good musician so that’s when I started singing new music. A few years later, I realized I needed to get more training to take care of my voice and be a little more flexible and versatile. I started to take lessons. Sirens was composed in this period of trying to improve that aspect of writing and singing.
Can you speak to the importance of process in your work, and does this intentionality and authenticity you speak of come about through process to break the boundaries between the traditional roles of maker vs. interpreter?
Maribeth: Process is everything for the piece I’m singing. I needed at this time to make Love Songs about something else completely than it was intended. Luckily, the composer Ana Sokolovic was most generous and allowed me to re-arrange sections within it and even leave some songs out. I knew from the beginning I needed to come up with the ideas of how to make this a work for me and in some important way to direct myself. I chose to include a child to tell my story, with all the unpredictability of a child and the element of play. I wanted the process to strip away any sense of artifice and to be an authentic expression. I knew you, Susan, would be an ally and mirror in the work, but I had to know first what it was I wanted to say.
Noelle: In Sirens, absolutely. In our process of making it, Tim made it clear that we would music-direct ourselves for we singers were to accompany ourselves on this prepared piano. All three of us felt that this empowered us, and, while there was a stage director, Brian was very invested in creating the space for us to explore. We all had different strengths, and in the process we had to learn to trust and how to ask for help from each other.
Kate: When we premiered the work, there was such an intimacy and intensity in relationship of the three singers/characters, and the rehearsal process was collaborative. There is no soloist, and mostly the sirens are singing together. Some of the movements have room for improvisation. That leads to a lot of autonomy for the singers. There is something special about this piece with the three singers building the shared instrument on their own, and this shadowing the dramaturgical idea in Sirens of three creatures having to rely on each other and use their talents and ingenuity to get through every day. What’s on stage becomes authentic through a kind of efficiency: emotionally and humanly it’s not just an intellectual exercise but part of the story.
There’s that word again. What does authenticity mean to you?
Kate: Yes, I talk a lot about authenticity in my writing. It’s an important as well as confusing topic for me to address. The act of being a singer involves a lot of artifice: the artifice of the work training your voice in what it doesn’t do naturally. But this is the composer’s work as well. So these are the questions: how can we find authenticity and how can we ever trust it? How can we ever even trust art or opera performance when it is all so rooted in artifice? There are certain ideas at the heart of Sirens that confound – the idea that beautiful music can be dangerous. I enjoy the difficulty of grappling with the question that just because something is beautiful, does that mean listening is right? But at the same time, I’m trying to write beautiful music. The difficulty and contradiction of wanting to be honest but also be an artist. I haven’t yet solved this for myself. Maybe the path is being transparent about what you are doing in the moment.
Do you all also have hopes/goals for all the artists in coming together in such a compressed time frame? What might you all gain in this shared festival?
Noelle: I had always considered myself a feminist and that it was important to define myself in that way, but I think ever since the 2016 election, the social critiques I had and the ideas about myself and the world, the values I wanted to lead my life with, I was not finding them in my singing life. It was as if I were two separate people: singer Noelle and person. I began to ask, “Why does it have to be that way? This came with the realization that I was in a field surrounded by women and I was interacting and collaborating with brilliant women, but the world itself was not female centric. This made for such a cognitive dissonance that I began to recognize how disempowered I felt in the stories I was telling. That’s when I really began to make my own work that also had a reading and writing component and do my own programming. I can now say I have my own ideas. I can direct my own projects. This is a long answer, but this gathering, I feel, can help my mission to build a diverse and inclusive community of creative women.
Kate: I want to do whatever I can to help people enjoy the opera. The accessibility lies in the direct address by the characters and the fact that the music here is all diagetic: what they are performing in front of your face is because that is what they are actually doing as characters. These sirens are banging inside the piano because they have run out of ways to play it after four hundreds of years. They are trapped in a myth cycle and entertaining themselves, and having ingenuity just because you got to entertain yourselves. The extended techniques in the music have a real purpose: they are about serving variety, serving the characters.
Maribeth: You have to have a set of questions you want to explore and this is the most interesting thing to me in attempting a work in theatre. The test for me is how far I let myself go and how far others will let me go. This is always the fight I have with myself in a process. But perhaps this festival is that place where we can encourage each other, “Go there.” And then what comes back, “Yeah, me too” which translates to “I’m here.”
Kate: I think we all have so many different dimensions not able to be categorized or reduced to [just] women artists. I’d like us to discover those other things that link us as artists. Maybe this is a weekend of opera that investigates authenticity.
Tim: What I know is that art makes the maker better – it heals, it teaches, it give space for emotional release and reflection. I hope we are always creating space for that part to be given precedence and depth of meaning. So with this festival, as with all our work, I’m hoping the artists are changed and understand themselves and their world better. If this is translated to the audience all the better.
As part of the festival, panel discussions will be led by Susan Galbraith and Michael Feldman from Alliance for New Music-Theatre.