Looking at You, a new opera—with music by Kamala Sankaram, libretto by Rob Handel and developed with and directed by Kristin Marting—premiered this fall to great anticipation and acclaim. The opera tells the story of employees at a tech company grappling with issues of privacy, loyalty and the impact of their work on the world at large. EiO Co-Founder, Jason Cady talked with Kamala and Rob to learn more about their perspectives about the piece and how they worked together.

Jason: First, could you just tell us what Looking At You is about?

Rob: It’s about a coder who gets her dream job as chief engineer at a big company. You know, think Google or Facebook. And just as she’s enjoying this job that her entire life’s work has led to, a story breaks on the news that her Ex has become a whistleblower and revealed a plot by 13 governments to spy on on their own citizens and to keep their audio recordings and the messages of where their GPS went and all the things that the surveillance capitalism system is now keeping track of on us. And because this person was her Ex, she’s involved in the manhunt for him, as he tries to find a safe place somewhere after having blown the whistle on all these governments.

Jason: And it references Casablanca, right? Like the title comes from “Here’s looking at you, kid?”

Rob: Casablanca has more memorable lines that everyone knows than any other movie. One of them near the end is Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman, “This thing’s bigger than both of us,” about the threat to civilization by the Nazis. And that really is the core idea that connected the themes in our show, because it’s about characters who have to make a decision between, their feelings and the threats to freedom that surveillance capitalism represents. The parallel is that if any particular group of people can be persecuted using these tools, then anyone can, and no one is really free.

Jason: Are there any musical connections with Casablanca, like quotations from the song As Time Goes By?

Kamala: There are no exact quotations, but the approach to the music is driven by the soundtracks of film noir. So that’s where the saxophone trio came from—trying to capture what those films sounded like. It’s a kind of jazz that’s supposed to signify urbanity and modernity, but of course the urbanity and modernity of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Jason: It’s a unique instrumentation, so I’m guessing your other choices were deliberate for this piece. You have piano, like “Sam the piano player” in Casablanca, and the electronics convey the idea of technology?

Kamala: Because the piece is so much about our real lives versus our lives online, I felt like the music had to mirror that. So we go back and forth between these EDM-inspired sections that are really about the tech company, and then the sections that are more interior or intimate are acoustic. The singers change singing styles. Dorothy [performed by Blythe Gaissert] sings classical through the whole thing, but everyone else has a moment where they break into some kind of pop style.

Jason: And does the piano represent “Sam the piano player” in Casablanca?

Kamala: I did think about the piano in Casablanca, but I don’t know that I thought they were one-to-one

Jason: How did your thinking evolve over the years you two have been working on this?

Kamala: The changes in the news have driven a lot of revisions. When we started out, it was 2013, and Snowden had just released his big document dump. It was all very new. We were in a writer’s group, and we came up with a couple songs. And as we kept going, more things kept happening, and then the election, and Cambridge Analytica. All of that had to make its way into the piece.

Jason: Since the character in your story, Ethan Snyder, is a reference to Edward Snowden, I’m wondering what you think about Snowden? Initially many people thought of him as a hero but now they associate him with Putin and the forces that helped get Trump elected.

Rob: It’s complicated. One of the great things that happened with this show over time is shifting away from Assange and Snowden—who I felt were really interesting when they first emerged because they believed that they were in a glamorous spy movie.

But what we’ve become interested in since then is more about the architecture of this spy web than the people exposing it. Books like Twitter and Tear Gas by Tufecki and Surveillance Capitalism contributed to our looking at the big picture and what it means for individuals and their ability to protest, or take on their governments. And the threat that’s posed to that has really become the main character of the show.

Another way we avoided some of the problematic aspects of these real-life characters is by gender reversing Casablanca, so that the Snowden character is really Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, and our protagonist, Dorothy, is Humphrey Bogart and is the one faced with the moral choice.

Jason: Oh wow! I was wondering about that because Casablanca is more about the triangle relationship between those two characters and Bergman’s character’s boyfriend, which I didn’t see when I read your libretto.

Kamala: An early draft of the piece had a triangle relationship, but we realized we weren’t really interested in that, and we got rid of it.

Jason: Do you think privacy is important in itself, or is it just problematic when people’s personal data gets exploited, like it did in the 2016 election to help Trump get elected?

Kamala: I think you bring up an interesting philosophical question. What does privacy even mean in this day and age, and why should we care about it? That has come up a few times, especially from people who are younger and don’t really have the same ideas about privacy that we have. But I think everyone still wants a space where they can express themselves freely and not be thrown in jail because of it. We should not be empowering governments or companies to know so much about us that they can make decisions about us based on what they think we’re going to do because of what we have done before. That’s already where we’re headed.

Jason: That theme is kind of Luddite, but the show uses technology in real time in an exciting way. At first I wondered if that was a contradiction, but I’ve come to think that the data mining that happens is more a tremendous example of theater magic than it is about using new technology.

Rob: I think you’re definitely onto something. When we tried it out in our various test runs, it really made me aware of how it’s making a group of people who come together in a room look at themselves and who they are, and be aware that they’re in a space with other people. Just like we’re in a space with other people on earth, or in a space with other people in a country. But we don’t actually have to see those people. When we go on Facebook, we don’t actually see those people. We don’t see the people who are sending us messages that are disturbing. And being in a room with someone is different than seeing them in the internet. Being aware that someone in the room would say something on social media that you wouldn’t say to someone across the table. That has been exposed in the workshops for the show.

Kamala: That’s why the piece isn’t really Luddite, because I don’t think we’re saying you should not post on social media, just that you should be aware of what’s being done with your data and who can see your posts. But because the tech companies are making so much money, we cannot trust them to act in a way that isn’t harmful towards their customers. Because there are no regulations in place to force tech companies to be careful with your data, they can do whatever they want with it. And until people care enough to harass their congressmen to change laws, it’s going to be on the person to take care of themselves. You’re not safe online, and you should be. So what are you going to do about it? The problem with something like this is because it’s such an abstract thing, the policy is so complicated, a lot of people just don’t even think about it.

Jason: In real life, I put my foot in my mouth pretty often, but on social media, I tend to be pretty careful about what I say. But when I went to the workshop performance some of my posts popped up on the screens and it felt weird because they didn’t have their original context. So that was eye opening for me.

Rob: As the show emphasizes dramatically, it comes back to the fact that your data is not distributed by people; it’s distributed by computer programs. There’s a place on Facebook where you can go and see what Facebook has concluded about you which helps guide advertisements toward your profile. And so when we were working on the show, many of us went on Facebook and looked at that feed. Anyone can look at it. It’s public. It’s interesting to see the things this algorithm was correct, and incorrect about.
I keep getting ads now on Twitter from an astroturfing group. It’s a clearly fake “grassroots” group called Airbnb Citizen, where they want me to contact my city councilmen and tell them to defend the rights of people to use Airbnb and rent out their apartment. And the reason I was so struck by the fact that I’ve only been getting this for the last two weeks is that the algorithm thinks I live in Jersey City where we’re rehearsing the show, whereas actually I live in Pittsburgh. It’s just getting it from my GPS.

Jason: That’s pretty creepy. But I was also wondering about your approach to libretto writing and how it differs from your playwriting? Your libretto tends to be pretty spare. It’s not wordy. And I notice you use an ABCB rhyme scheme a lot.

Rob: It’s not really required to use rhyme, but I just got carried away. The great thing about writing opera librettos is the idea to use as few words as possible, and it’s all about taking words away as you go through the process. I find that really daunting and really delightful.

Jason: As you revised, the language became starker?

Rob: I think in some places, especially the big arias, which is where you want to say the most with the fewest words.

Jason: Do you think of Looking At You as an opera, or are you avoiding the word “opera” for any reason?

Kamala: HERE has a relationship with more theater reviewers, and we wanted them to be the ones to come rather than just the classical music people.

Rob: It really is a hybrid piece in so many ways, both theatrically and musically.

Jason: For some opera purists, the EDM—and probably other aspects—would make them think it’s not opera.

Kamala: Exactly.

Jason: I’m not a purist, so for me, it’s clearly opera.

Kamala: I think it’s an opera. But, it’s also about trying to get people who haven’t been to an opera before to come.

Jason: Lots of people are afraid of opera. They’re probably more afraid of opera than they are of their data being exploited.

Kamala: Yeah, I think that’s true.

A.M. Homes, the librettist of Chunky in Heat, is the author of six novels, three short-story collections, and three non-fiction books. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages and appears frequently in Art Forum, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Zoetrope. She is a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot. She was a Co-Executive Producer and Writer on David E. Kelly and Stephen King’s, Mr. Mercedes, and was a writer/producer of the Showtime series The L Word.

EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady talked with her over the phone about Los Angeles, body dysmorphia, growing up with the Texaco Opera broadcasts and writing her first opera libretto.

Jason Cady: First, could you just tell us what Chunky in Heat is about?

A.M. Homes: Chunky in Heat is about a family carrying on after trauma. The loss of the younger brother isn’t discussed and isn’t really dealt with. So it’s a story about ghosts. And it’s about trying to break away and claim one’s space. And the question is, freedom at what cost? What does it mean to leave the family or break with the tribe? I don’t know if that answers it, but to me that is what it’s about. When people say, “tell us what something’s about,” I think, “I have no idea.” [laugh] Because when I’m writing I don’t think about it in that way of a logline. When I look at the group of stories that I drew upon to write the libretto, it’s a long coming-of-age story, in the sense that for me, it was written over a 30-year period of returning to these characters.

Jason Cady: I’m relieved you called it a coming-of-age story, because I said that earlier but I wasn’t sure if you thought of it like that.

A.M. Homes: It’s a phrase we hear all the time, but what’s interesting about coming-of-age is that it’s a process. We think of it as something that happens to adolescents, and then as you get older you realize you spend your whole life coming-of-age. One’s relationship to self and family and history evolves over time. You could think you understand yourself when you’re 13 and lying in the backyard and overheated. And then looking at yourself years later it’s different.

Jason Cady: Yeah, and the midlife crisis is another coming-of-age.

A.M. Homes: Exactly. If you haven’t completed coming-of-age by midlife, you will have a midlife crisis that forces you to deal with it.

Jason Cady: I don’t think Chunky in Heat is autobiographical in the ordinary sense. For example, I know you didn’t grow up in L.A., but did any of your life experiences make it into the story?

A.M. Homes: As a fiction writer and someone who has written non-fiction and memoir, I pride myself on my fiction being truly a work of fiction—something created not out of my life. But there are always pieces of one’s self, of one’s history or psychological elements that you’re exploring. For me the unspoken secret here is that I’m adopted, and I grew up with a family where six months before I was born, a 9-year-old had died of kidney failure. So a very different kind of experience than is represented in Chunky in Heat, but that question of living with grief that is not talked about was in my family. Questions of identity and the need to separate oneself are things that are real for me. It’s funny, I haven’t ever spoken about them, or overtly written about them, but they are threaded through the opera more than they are through the stories. I think they came into clearer contrast or fuller exposure in the libretto than in the stories.

Jason Cady: I had a slightly similar experience, which was that the oldest of my cousins died as a child. And after her death the family poured their grief into love for the next in line cousin, and my sister and I were born later and the family seemed less interested in us.

A.M. Homes: Did she die suddenly?

Jason Cady: Yeah, she was hit by a car. And the next oldest cousin was a total disaster, ran away from home, had serious drug problems and stuff, but the family thought she could do no wrong.

A.M. Homes: Families are weird. That is the theme here.

Jason Cady: And what inspired you to keep returning to these characters over 30 years.

A.M. Homes: When I started revisiting the characters—which was in the story “Raft in Water, Floating,” I had started thinking about shape-shifting and this family—only in retrospect did I realize it was the same family. That happens; I’ve had threads of stories or characters recur for me in pieces of fiction, sometimes accidentally, and then as I’ve gotten older, intentionally, because I like trying to pull the thread through. Over the years there have been three books of stories. “Chunky in Heat” was in The Safety of Objects. “Raft in Water, Floating” was in Things You Should Know. And the last two, “Hello Everybody” and “She Got Away” were in the book that came out last year, Days of Awe. By the time I visited them again in the last two stories, it was very much intentional. I was thinking about this character’s evolution from this chunky girl in the backyard thinking about weight and sex and being a teenager, to the disintegration of her family in a physical and palpable way, and the way the trauma took its toll on them. It’s the personal trauma of the loss of the brother, but also the larger social trauma of society and its expectations and projections about weight and our physical natures, and independence and success and consumerism, which for me is the L.A. piece of that. There’s so much pressure on beauty. Whatever that might mean. And pressure on what we perceive as success—being, a house high up in the hills that overlooks the city.

I decided to make a concerted effort to write about this family. And ultimately, I found it very moving to spend time with them over this period of years and to realize I could have written a novel about them. But the condensed nature of short stories works well for them, and for the hyper-condensed nature of their lives in L.A. And that also goes into formal elements of storytelling—that by the end of the group of stories, how does Chunky achieve liberation? It’s really out of grief.

Jason Cady: At first, I assumed Chunky was just perceived as overweight by her body-dysmorphic family. And then when you read the story at our fundraiser, something about hearing it read out loud made me think, “Well, maybe this character is supposed to be big.”

A.M. Homes: One of the interesting things is at what point is it dysmorphia? At what point is a person heavy, or too heavy? Is it only when the medical establishment says, “according to your body mass index, you’re fat?” Or is it cultural? One of the cool things about when you write something and send it off into the world is the way it’s open to interpretation. Any interpretation would be adequate and accurate. You could have a person who in any part of the country would be seen to be normal and healthy, and in Los Angeles would be thought to be fat yet in the Midwest she would be skinny. I had a male friend who had anorexia, but they talk about how men, at least publicly, don’t seem to suffer from the same issues—and I’m not sure that’s really true. But it’s so interesting to see the ways in which women are constantly doing things to their bodies or trying to make sense of their bodies. Even young girls.

Jason Cady: You talked a little already about the L.A. setting, but it’s so important to the story I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts about it.

A.M. Homes: L.A. is fascinating because it is in some ways still the American outback. It reinvents itself constantly and allows for personal reinvention in a way the East Coast is more resistant to. People break out of category there. You could be a hairdresser and then run a movie studio. It’s also a place where the American Dream has continued to thrive, meaning that people come from all over the world. People think they will come and make a life there as a star, or being able to support their family. So it is a place of hopefulness, and delusions. The other funny thing is that people are like, “I love it for the weather.” And I think, “Which part?” “Do you mean the fires? The flash floods? Do you mean the fact that it’s unrelentingly sunny in a way that, as a modestly depressive person, I can’t bear?” People build houses on a hillside, and there will be a mudslide, and the house will completely slide down the hill. And they’ll just rebuild the house. And I can’t decide if that’s a peculiar kind of optimism and naiveté or just stupidity.

Jason Cady: Since you’ve written for television as well as novels and short stories, how was it writing an opera? Were there things you could or couldn’t do that were different from other mediums?

A.M. Homes: I don’t really know the answer yet, so I need to do it again, because it’s a lot of fun. I started off as a playwright, so one thing is, when somebody is representing your narrative on stage it means you can be more abstract, more otherworldly, because there is a physical person literally embodying that text. And when you add that it’s sung, that changes it enormously. And that’s one of the things I haven’t had a chance to play with enough. Also it’s going to be illustrated or expounded upon or expanded or contracted by the music and that adds so many dimensions and possibilities. People have different pulses and the way those pulses contrast or can be compassionate towards each other—all of that is fascinating to me.

Jason Cady: Did you have any reactions to the music you heard in the workshop performance of Chunky in Heat?

A.M. Homes: Honestly, hearing the music for the first time, I was so incredibly bowled over in a wonderful way, by the variety of the music, the complexity of the music, the relationship of the music to the libretto and how it did things I never would have thought of. It will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve. It’s why I like to have people take something I’ve done and make something else out of it. To me the fun is seeing what else can happen.

Jason Cady: One thing I love about Chunky in Heat is that it doesn’t try too hard to reference opera tropes—though, of course it has plenty of tragedy. Did you avoid opera cliches, or think about those issues?

A.M. Homes: Yeah, I do, and they’re layered and complicated. I approach the whole thing as experimental. I’m aware of how little I intimately understand the structures of opera. Which is different than saying “Oh yeah, I know what that is.” Having written a bunch of books, I have architectural knowledge about how a novel or a story can work, but my relationship to opera has been more casual. Growing up, my Saturdays were spent in my grandmother’s car with the Texaco opera broadcast. That was what my mother and grandmother did every weekend. They listened to that, and would get their hair done, which made no sense to me. So the mythology of personhood was that you’re watching people sitting under hair dryers listening to opera. My father was an artist and would go to museums and no one in the family would go with him except for me. I only went because he would take you to the gift store and you could get a book; he never bought you anything otherwise. So I got these accidental educations.

When it was time to do this, I had moments of genuine panic and thought, “Oh my god, I don’t know how to do this” and like, “Hurry! study up!” Then I thought if I pay too much attention in that way, it will be paint-by-numbers. I’ll be like, “Oh my god, this has to happen here, and that has to happen there.” I read a bunch of librettos. I like to read poetry and I like music a lot, so I’m interested in the relationship of lyric and narrative. I thought, “I really have to just go with the experimental,” and also trust you and Aaron [Siegel] and these composers. But having no idea where it’s going to land is the joy of it. The real pleasure is the risk-taking.

Jason Cady: I’m curious about the balance between comedy and drama in Chunky in Heat because from a historical perspective, it’s not comedy. It doesn’t end in a marriage. It’s tragedy, but there’s lots of funny stuff in it, and the tone is comedy. And a lot of your other writings are also funny, although I don’t know if they really fall into the genre of humor.

A.M. Homes: When I was younger, it was important to me to write about things that made people uncomfortable. Making them feel uncomfortable wasn’t my goal. Talking about things that aren’t talked about was, and is still, my goal. And finding language for things that we find difficult. In my own life, the idea of finding humor or absurdity or irony or just moments that break the surface tension is important. I feel like if you can make a person laugh, then you can also talk more seriously. That’s really the key to all the things I’m writing and talking about. They’re dark, and they’re serious. They’re not dark because I’m a dark person. They’re dark because they are the parts of life that are hard to deal with. You could look at this story and be like, “Yeah, having a kid get bitten by a snake and die, and having a sister who can’t eat, and who’s afraid to leave the house are painful, dark things.” But I think when you can calm them in ways that have lightness, whether it’s the notion that she needed to be weighted down because she was afraid she would float away. Or the way she counted the calories per item—that’s also the absurdity of our contemporary life.

Humor has become increasingly important to me, but as I’ve gotten older—and I hadn’t articulated this before—I’m more willing to take that risk. As a younger writer, it felt too dangerous to write something that was both serious and funny. And even in the last few years people would say, “Well, are you trying to be funny, or are you trying to be serious?” And I thought, “They’re not mutually exclusive.” But it’s difficult for people to tolerate that, especially in this country, because they’re like, “Are you making fun of America, or celebrating it?” And I’m like, “both.” And in this case, there’s a lot of absurdity to Chunky in Heat. I can’t wait to see how Alison [Moritz] is going to stage it. My sense is there will be quite a bit of play among singers and stuff. That’s interesting because how do you talk about things that are so incredibly painful, and how do you illustrate them, without it being excruciating for the audience?

Jason Cady: Days of Awe is coming out in paperback in June. Do you have any other projects in the works right now?

A.M. Homes: I’m writing a novel about the downfall of the U.S. government. When I started it, everybody said, “You don’t write science fiction.” I said, “I think there’s something happening.”

Jason Cady: Wow!

A.M. Homes: Yeah, and that was before the election.

Jason Cady: And when is that coming out?

A.M. Homes: It’s supposed to come out in 2020, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Jason Cady: 2020 seems like the right time.

A.M. Homes: I know, right? That was the plan. And I want to write another opera.

Jason Cady: Oh, yes! That’s actually the correct answer to my question.

A.M. Homes: I really do. I have a giant idea I’ve been wanting to write for years. And I feel like I have to figure out how to do that. And the things you guys are doing are so cool. I’m a fan.

One of the things that’s so amazing is we’ve got six composers; we’ve got Alison, who’s this talented director; and multiple other elements. And the coolest thing is what happens when you bring in different people and ask them to do their thing. And the other thing that’s interesting is the speed that you guys work because things like writing a novel are a many-year process. You turn it in, and it comes out a year later. And as you’ve talked about, traditionally opera is a very long process. But to be able to do something that I worked on last summer that we’re going to see at the beginning of this summer is amazing. It means a person can talk about the world around them in a way that is, kind of, in real time.

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Timothy Stoddard plays the roles of Walter, The Fiancee and Beekeeper in the premiere of Chunky in Heat.

I was like the only out kid at my high school, which is really fun considering we had this giant auditorium that said “Home of the Bruins” that some jackass every year climbed all the way up there miraculously and removed letters so it looked like this: “Hom O the Bruin” (blink blink, knee slap).

I was in choir, and I was also the editor-in-chief of the high school yearbook. I wasn’t the coolest kid. So, I had to head the mass voting for “Best ofs” and “Most Likely to.” Surprisingly, I won best laugh. But of course since I wasn’t cool, there was a slew of conspiracy theories as to how I rigged that in my favor. Also, most people hated the theme I suggested, that ended up getting the majority vote from the yearbook staff: “Raise the Roof!” I was like Public Enemy Number 1.

I also wasn’t good at math. My geometry teacher Mrs. Bybee was a character, to say the least. She wore Birkenstocks everyday, even in winter, and had an array of birdhouse sweatshirts. I had class with my good friend Liyah, who was a refugee from Armenia. But Mrs. Bybee, couldn’t grasp that, and always referred to Liyah as a foreign exchange student.

We had to take a district math assessment during junior year to see if we would progress onto calculus? Trigonometry? I wouldn’t know, cause spoiler alert, I didn’t pass. What she did, was invite us up to her desk and discreetly tell us our scores, while we worked on some math related craft in class. But, when I went up to her desk, she looked up from my test and ANNOUNCED to the class, “Tim, I’m sorry, you will not graduate to the next math class.” SHOOK. I was so embarrassed. But, I was like, oh it’s on, Mrs. Bybee. (I went on to the math class where they teach you how to like balance a check book and shit, which is actually way more useful than trigonometry. K THX BAI)

Before Christmas break, Bybee had brought her scrapbooking scissors to class for us to craft and she had gushed how she looked forward to scrapbooking club over her holiday break every year. So, to exact my revenge for being publicly humiliated, when Bybee wasn’t looking, I stole her scrapbook scissors and sashayed my way to Xmas break. (I didn’t plan to keep them, just hold them over the break, and then return them without her knowing who took them).

After break, we returned to classes. As I entered geometry, Mrs. Bybee was standing by the whiteboard like some sort of dark, mysterious figure of great mourning. Yeah, she didn’t take it very well at all. We spent half that first math class back with Mrs. Bybee drawing ALL the shapes of the blades to each of her scrapbooking scissors like a lineup of missing children posters. She broke down into tears. I was so disappointed with myself.

My friend Liyah told me she would return them in stealth during yearbook period (when I was still a mere reporter), which she did, unscathed. The next day, Bybee was shining like a ray of sunlight. She thanked whoever returned the scissors for doing so, while staring at Liyah, saying things like she didn’t know who, it would remain anonymous, never breaking her gaze at Liyah. “Why you looking at me? I didn’t do it!” “Nevermind, Liyah,” Bybee said. I felt awful again. But I wasn’t about to rat myself out.

The next year, the newspaper had a column for senior confessions, and I was in a position to leave school permanently before it was released. I confessed in the newspaper to Bybee that I had stolen her scissors. I felt a bit of relief.

Later in the summer, I was grocery shopping for my Gramma Boo Boo, who had pretty advanced macular degeneration. She would give me a list of things to buy, she usually referred to the punchline of the products and I had to guess. “The soup that eats like a meal” or errors like “Butter I don’t think it is.” LOL So I was shopping, and I reached the end of the aisle and I did that thing they do in movies where you bump carts with a person coming around the corner. Of course I did, because guess who it was, BYBEE! She was so stunned, and she shrieked “YOU SCALAWAG!” And then she laughed. She was in good humor and had actually gotten a bit of a kick out of my newspaper confession.

LOL awww the memories of being a young sociopath…

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Rachel Doehring plays the role of Abigail/Shapeshifter in the premiere of Chunky in Heat.

Both of my characters’ lives in this opera revolve around their relationship with…you guessed it…FOOD! Who doesn’t relate to that?!  I love the way Alison (director) is framing both Abigail and the Shapeshifter the context of the story: as embodiments of the extremes of women’s hunger. On one side of the spectrum, we have Abigail, who is consumed by external pressures of image and perfection, and eats only one calorie at a time. On the other end is the Shapeshifter, seen onstage as a ravenous and indulgent coyote, totally indifferent to the gaze of society.

As a teenager, I was always somewhere in-between these mentalities. I can remember times when I single-handedly ate an entire pack of Oreos, or long summer days when I lived off of nothing but Diet Coke and the fumes of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion. I think many women, myself included, have experienced some combination of what Abigail and the Shapeshifter represent. What Chunky in Heat points out, for me, is the particular centrality of food and diet in women’s lives today: when it comes to food, no matter what you choose, you feel the weight of the choice. I couldn’t be more excited to explore these concepts in such a fantastic show! Teenage me was OBSESSED with opera, and definitely would have been psyched to do something this strange and awesome… I guess I haven’t changed that much!

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Jason Cady is one of the six composers who contributed music to Chunky in Heat.

“This record,” the cop said, “you don’t even need to play backwards.” The cop—a guest speaker in my 7th grade English class—was a self-proclaimed expert on how rock bands subvert the youth with subliminal messages about drugs and SATAN! He had already played a variety of jams for us, like Another One Bites The Dust, which when played backwards, said “schmoke marah wah-nah.” But, when he got to the Dead Kennedy’s he read the actual lyrics to us. The song was about a coroner who couldn’t afford to feed his family so he resorted to sneaking them human meat. In case the Swiftian satire was not obvious enough the term “Reagonomics” appeared toward the end. But, according to the cop, this was a satanic band advocating cannibalism.

By 7th grade I had learned that cops, teachers, and adults-in-general were The Enemy. I know rebellion is just another trope of adolescence but my anti-authoritarianism coincided with moving across the country, and I always attributed my bad attitude more to this change of my environment. I had been a boy who loved Mad Magazine, football, and Top-40 Pop, but after moving I started skating, playing drums, and listening to Punk Rock. I experienced all the normal self-loathing associated with puberty but what stands out in my memory are clashes with authority like the cops who arrested me for skating in an abandoned swimming pool or the teacher who put me in a headlock because my T-shirt violated the dress-code. (It was part of a local anti-skinhead campaign and it said “Fuck Racism.”) Feeling rejected by society, I sought out culture that the mainstream had also snubbed, which eventually led me to Ornette Coleman and John Cage. So, in a weird way, I’m kind of saying I wouldn’t have become a composer if the adults around me hadn’t been such assholes.

During difficult times I tell myself, “At least I’ll never go through adolescence again.” Although I’m glad I’m not the person I was then, I must admit that parts of my teen-self are still alive and well. When composing music for Chunky in Heat I couldn’t help but focus on making grooves for drums and bass. I didn’t want any Punk Rock influence in my settings but there was one moment that resonated with my teen music taste; there was a passage in the libretto about Eastern spirituality that I illustrated by trying to evoke the modal Free-Jazz of artists like Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. I think my teen self would have been down with that section, but he would have been baffled by the whole opera thing. I wonder what the cop who spoke to my English class in 7th grade would think of Chunky in Heat. I imagine him saying, “These guys must be on drugs.”

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Aaron Siegel is one of the six composers who contributed music to Chunky in Heat.

What I remember most about being in high school was a strange imbalance of social and intellectual growth.  On one hand, I was totally excited about learning and also felt that whatever strengths I found in the classroom (and the band room) were totally irrelevant when it came to my social life.  I often felt like I was raised to just be nice to people and was confused that this approach didn’t really carry any weight in the turbulent emotional world of High School.  On the home front, my parents pretty much lost all credibility for me during this period, as I realized that they were just flawed people who knew only marginally more than I did about how to be emotionally stable.

When I got my scenes for Chunky, I was struck immediately about trying to access the emotional space of teenage ambiguity.   On one hand, Chunky has this luxurious life by the pool, and on the other her parents are a mess, her brother has died, and the family is barely keeping it together.  Family trauma is hard, but when it happens just as someone is trying to figure out who and what they are, it is even harder.  I tried to capture this tension in the music, leaning on genre signifiers to denote some sense of normality (even bliss), and also to bring in dissonance and rhythmic turbulences as a way of upsetting the expectations.

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Emily Geller is singing the role of Mother in Chunky in Heat.

I’ve always had a dramatic flare. As a kid (and adult), I enjoyed portraying different characters. Dress up and imaginary play were my favorite activities. Sylvia (Mother) is interesting, like all of A.M. Homes’s characters. She’s fantastically ridiculous. My challenge is to find her humility so I don’t cross over into a caricature. She uses her image, in the form of plastic surgery, to keep control over her life after her son’s death. As a new mother myself, I think this is the key to finding her truth.

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Sarah Daniels sings the role of Chunky in the upcoming production of Chunky in Heat.

Upon first reading the libretto I thought “So, this is about me as a teenager.” I relate to Chunky at an embarrassingly high level. Somehow simultaneously self-centered and self-conscious. Overly confident in some ways, and wildly under-confident in most other ways. Seeing the world entirely through the lens of how it relates to me. First of all, of course I relate to Chunky’s body image issues. I can’t imagine a world in which teenage girls don’t care about how they look and obsessively compare themselves to celebrities and their peers. I used to make makeshift corsets out of bandanas and wear them under my t-shirts. Cosmopolitan magazine was a strange, forbidden bible of female perfection. It’s a messed up world, that of a teenage girl. BUT more than anything as a teenager, I wanted to get out, and it wasn’t so much a “plan” in my head as it was the inevitable trajectory for me. I had set all my clocks and watches to New York time years before I graduated and left the southwest. I dressed up every single day of high school as if to prepare myself for the high pressure to be fashionable in New York City. I totally isolated myself in this way, and I didn’t much care because I was leaving it all behind in a matter of years anyway. I was living a life in preparation for the future. Even if I didn’t get into my dream NYC conservatory, the plan was to go to New York regardless–start taking voice lessons and start auditioning for theatre. The plan was to escape to something better, bigger, brighter, at any cost. I realize now what a fantasy world I lived in, but I can’t complain–I’m in New York City, and I still call it home almost ten years later, forever chasing the dream (albeit with far much less glamour than I had envisioned as a 15-year-old). tl;dr Playing Chunky hits close to home.

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Matthew Welch is one of the six composers who contributed music to Chunky in Heat.

One aspect of the story that I was trying to capture in the music is the idea of body dysmorphia and also how that can relate to eating disorders. My take on the shapeshifter character, albeit inspiring a magical realist scenario, is that of personal projection on Chunky’s part. Here the shapeshifter externalizes and epitomizes the issues of diet and personal malleability; that one’s focus on their body image and the compulsion to change it are mixed up in an anxious stew, which for teenagers, is magnified by so many changes in body and personal identity.

Personally, I have struggled with binge eating and fluctuating weight, and the delusional idea that something “wrong” with one’s body can be “fixed.” I also was a bit of a loner in my teen years, but a keen observer of the concerns of more socialized and popular kids. No doubt my teenage socially awkward moments number in the millions, a general experience I tried to encapsulate here.

The music for my scenes uses sliding strings and surprise harmony as a metaphor for the changing of body shape, size and visage. Also, it builds off of a stewy mix of musical idioms that comes to represent the sound of LA; grinding skate-punk, bubbly surf-rock and Hollywood-esque soundscapes.

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Erin Rogers is one of the six composers who contributed music to Chunky in Heat.

My braces felt like they would never come off. At age 14, the prospect of two years seemed like a lifetime. Right as I wanted my social life to kick into high-gear – at school dances, sports, and extra-curricular activities – my metal smile was a disaster. In addition, I was spending my allowance on acne cleansers and scouring my Dad’s closet for oversize sweatshirts to disguise my changing body. No one was crushing on me. I was crushing on everyone. What I wanted was an exciting nightlife, what I got was homework and music practice. Throughout the compositional process for Chunky in Heat, I tried to channel Cheryl’s feelings for Walter. Her lustful, colorific soliloquies in Scene 2, Part 1 while alone, at her family home, were an important mental escape for her. I know that place.


Every Single Visual Image is a Code for Something

Designer, Puppeteer, Director Jeanette Yew is one of the main creative forces behind Experiments in Opera’s premiere production of And Here We Are.  Jeanette has been collaborating with composer Matthew Welch and librettist Daniel Neer for the past year on bringing this chilling story to life through a hybrid form of shadow puppetry.  EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady talked with Jeanette recently about the history of shadow puppetry and why she can understand that God has been pictured as an old man in paintings throughout history.

JASON CADY: First, could you tell us about yourself and what you do in the theatre?

JEANETTE OI-SUK YEW: I am the lighting and projection designer for live performances, and art installation. I also direct, and design, and create contemporary puppetry performances. And I teach design, actually starting this fall, with NYU.

CADY: When did you become interested in puppetry?

YEW: I started when I was at the University of Washington as an undergrad, because there was somebody that teaches puppetry there. I was just fascinated by this idea of marrying craft, skills, object, and performance together. And then I went to CalArts and studied with Janie Geiser, who is an experimental filmmaker and puppeteer.

CADY: Could you tell us what And Here We Are is about and your roles in it?

YEW: And Here We Are is a surreal exploration of a person’s coping mechanism while being interned during World War II in an internment camp in the Philippines. My role in this project is to design and direct it as a shadow puppet opera. The psychedelic aspect of shadow puppetry is a great vehicle to explore this intense psychological landscape that Edgar, the main character, is experiencing. The opera is conceived to have shadow puppetry as the main visual storytelling, so I’m directing that. And there is going to be a band on stage along with the singers.

CADY: Do the singers also act?

YEW: There’s a little interaction in the beginning to set up the convention. The puppets, and puppeteer are an extension of the singers who embody the character through their voices. So there’s a staging aspect in the beginning so the audience understands this puppetry tradition of splitting up the vocal and the visual.

CADY: Do the puppets allow the singers to portray multiple characters?

YEW: Definitely. Although the design centers more on an abstract exploration in that it is not a one-to-one relationship. The wonderful thing is that puppetry allows you to go psychologically to different terrains for understanding storytelling, compared to when the singer portrays the character physically as a human being, we assume that the presence of the person is the same as the character.

But with puppetry we’re separating all these different elements so the voice is associated with the singer, while the physical form is portrayed visually. The physical portrayal is not necessarily a straight portrayal. At times it’s almost like an essence of a human being or a thought, rather than an exact representation.

CADY: Plus, it’s an opera instead of a play, so the voices themselves are one level removed, as far as abstraction.

YEW: Yes, definitely. I love working in opera precisely because the voice itself is, as you said, one level removed. So now, in this case, we dive even deeper into further abstract experiences.

CADY: For anyone not familiar with shadow puppetry, could you just explain what it is?

YEW: Shadow puppetry relies on putting a light source and a surface, and in between it is where the form of the shadow, the puppet exists, which then casts a shadow onto the surface.

CADY: And could you tell us a little about its history?

YEW: In the U.S. puppetry does not really have a long history. But shadow puppetry on the worldwide stage has a long tradition, particularly in East Asia. The Greeks, for example, have a long tradition. So does Turkey.

CADY: When I think of Greek theater, I just think of Sophocles and Aristophanes and Euripides, I didn’t know they had shadow puppets.

YEW: The Greeks and Turks actually have a long tradition, they both have this character—in the Turkish version, it’s called Karagöz. And this particular character is very political, and goes around the villages telling stories and making fun of current affairs and the monarch and society. For example—Punch and Judy, which is an Italian puppet—Punch is a despicable character. He hits his wife. He threw his baby out the window. He killed a policeman. He killed a crocodile, and eventually the devil. It’s a long and widely loved form of political theatre, of challenging and saying to the world, “I don’t care. This is what I do. This is who I am.”

CADY: So the puppets can do things that ordinary people can’t?

YEW: For many cultures, human beings are not allowed to portray divine beings. So part of the function of puppetry is that it can embody divine beings and pass on the stories and perform them in public.

CADY: It’s taboo for humans to represent deities?

YEW: It’s not that there’s something wrong with humans portraying deities, but that the human is not the right vehicle to channel these ideas.

CADY: So it’s just that humans aren’t really qualified?

YEW: Yeah, sort of like how we discussed earlier, in opera, the voices become something else. The sheer fact of singing—even though you’re delivering the same text—the singing itself elevates it into something more abstract.

CADY: I always thought it was funny how God is depicted as an old man in Christian iconography. As great as the Sistine Chapel is, it’s bizarre to think God would exist in human form.

YEW: You have to think in context of when the culture was founded. In Christianity’s origin, human beings didn’t live that long, because the world was harsh, and there were no antibiotics. So this idea of the Christian God, being an older person shows a level of power because human beings couldn’t live that long.

CADY: That’s a great defense of Michelangelo.

YEW: Well, I believe every single visual image is a code for something.

CADY: You convinced me.

YEW: [laugh] That’s great! I hope the Pope will invite me to dinner one day.

CADY: And what is your take on shadow puppetry in And Here We Are?

YEW: We were inspired by Indonesian puppet design. Traditionally they use leather and bones to create their puppets, and then there will be a giant group of gamelan players.

We’re contemporizing it by using video projections, and live feed camera, to create shadow puppet effects, in addition to a more traditional idea of using a light source and screen.

CADY: That sounds incredible. It might not even need any music!

YEW: [laughs] I don’t think so! I think the music is what makes it good.

CADY: What other projects do you have coming up?

YEW: I’m developing a piece that explores how we want our communities to look in the future, How would we actually like to live as human beings, assuming we all survive.

CADY: I am often struck by the realization that the world we live in is one we have made and chosen. I don’t mean nature, of course, but society. There are so many problems in the world, and humans just collectively decided to tolerate them. We decided this is the best of all possible worlds, instead of some utopia.

YEW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of debate. Some people believe the only way to achieve a better community is to go small. Some people believe that it is about density. And part of it actually originated with the Bible, the book of Genesis, which is all about how the world was created, and all these different stories of people creating community for themselves, or in some cases God dictating how they would create communities. So, I just want to ask how we really want to live.

CADY: Do you have an answer? Or are you just interested in examining the idea of this question?

YEW: I am interested in the idea of the question. I grew up in Hong Kong, so I think there are huge advantages to high density. But at the same time, I understand people who prefer to live in the woods with 100 acres around them. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but we should start asking these questions. Just because of how something has been doesn’t mean it is the best way to do something. In every single journey someone, at some point, asks a question, and that leads to the evolution of ideas.

CADY: This reminds me of Walden Two, which was an inspiration for the commune movement. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember thinking it was a surprisingly interesting and compelling novel, considering it was written by B. F. Skinner.

YEW: Yeah, it is. There’s a community in New Mexico where the center of their community is actually a performing space, which is a very Greek idea: performance as a public debate, as a way to converse.
And Henry Ford built one of his factories in the rainforest as an ideal way of living. He was preoccupied with how to create a utopia for his workers to live in and work. So many different people over time have many different ideas of how to organize society. And honestly, I believe that religion started out as a way to organize society.

CADY: Henry Ford was a terrible person in a lot of ways, but also pretty interesting as a historical figure, I’ve been to his Greenfield Village before. Do you know Greenfield Village?

YEW: I’ve heard of it. So you’ve been to it? Wow.

CADY: I’m from Flint, Michigan so I went there as a child, and also this last Christmas. Ford had the Wright Brothers house transported there, and some other homes that were just old. And you can ride in a Model T. But, speaking of Ford, what about communism? Is that one of the utopian ideas for your piece?

YEW: Yeah, definitely. Although I think communism is often misunderstood, because you have to go through capitalism before you get there, and none of the countries have actually gone through that process. But the idea that you can create a system where it promotes a level of economic equality is something I think every country, as an organism, is striving to get to. I think the idea of communism is trying to be a kind and empathetic system, without addressing greed or other kinds of human desire. But fundamentally it’s really trying to think, what does fairness look like? What does equality look like?

CADY: And what’s next for And Here We Are?

YEW: We’re hoping to tour, so if anybody is curious of bringing And Here We Are to their city, let us know.

 When We Dream We are Figuring Out
the Riddles of the Day

Librettist and Singer Daniel Neer approached his work on the forthcoming opera And Here We Are with a rigorous inventiveness.  A combination of history, memoir and fiction, the opera explores the psychology of war, imprisonment and identity, all the while giving us a thrilling story about a man’s fight for survival.  Daniel talked with EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady about what made this project different and exciting for him.

JASON CADY: Can you first tell us what And Here We Are is about?

DANIEL NEER: The story is about Edgar Kneedler* and his family, who were in Manila in the Philippines running a series of hotels. America became involved in the war, and the Japanese took over the Philippines. That was MacArthur’s famous “I’ll be back,” where he left the Philippines. And every westerner was incarcerated.

Edgar remained behind as manager of the hotel, which was housing Japanese soldiers. So at the beginning of the opera, Edgar arrives at the camp as one of the last westerners.

It was tricky writing a plot for something historical because everyone knows the ending. But we get to see through Edgar’s eyes a situation that was supposed to be temporary, which ended up being several years, and much more serious. These were people who were running businesses. They were not soldiers; they were civilians, and completely not prepared for what was happening to them in this camp. They were allowed to take one suitcase, which was, of course, confiscated. The clothes they wore on their back they wore the entire time in the camp.

One story follows Edgar’s experience of witnessing what’s happening around him in the years in this camp. But the other story is a more personal story of Edgar’s, which is that we know from his diaries that he was searching. He had a passion for music and opera, and some voice training. So in the second storyline, we see this awakening of Edgar, as he is forced in this concentration camp to rectify to himself what is important and to get serious and realize that every day is precious and he should not just sit on a dream. He should act on it. By the end of the experience he is changed in that way.

CADY: You said writing historical fiction is hard since everyone knows the ending, but one of the things I love about this story is that I knew nothing about what happened in the Philippines despite World War II being such a significant historical event in the minds of most Americans.

NEER: And that’s what’s powerful about this story. Edgar’s diaries gave an interesting focus into this. In one of the early paragraphs of the memoir, he says, “I’m not going to write about the horrible things that happened in the camp, because there are plenty of people that will write about those things.”

Not only did I run out to find those books, but it also gave me an insight into Edgar’s psyche. That this is somebody who decided right away, “I’m making the best of the situation, and what I choose to write about and remember are the uncanny, weird, funny things.”

I found those books and they are full of atrocities, and Edgar is featured in most of them. And we’re talking about thousands of people, but he was somebody they all knew and remembered.

He was kind of a joker. He was trying to help people and he was a positive influence in the camp. And that helped shape his character and the whole libretto for the opera.

CADY: I imagine Matt Welch being in such a predicament and standing out in his own way.

NEER: And to be clear, some of the things that he found funny to tell in his memoirs were horrifying. I mean, not funny at all to me. There was a line in the libretto in which he says, “It’s interesting what one finds funny when you’re locked up in a camp.” Matt and I talked a lot about that. About not only the mental effect of being in a camp and having to adjust yourself to selective seeing as a form of survival, but also this notion that year by year that compass shifts and what you find funny is nothing like your previous life at all.

Peppered in with this is the fact that most of these people had beriberi, a disease caused by lack of protein. One of the symptoms of beriberi is hallucinations and paranoia. So Matt and I tried to take the things that were comic to him and blow them up and as time went on they become even more heightened and psychedelic as an imprint on Edgar’s mind.

CADY: Since you did so much research I wonder how much pure fiction is in the story?

NEER: I call it selective fiction. For instance, the villain in the story is the guard, Abiko, who was a real person. The stories in the libretto and the anecdotes for him are actually his, but also a few other guards thrown in.

Abiko was shot by Americans who entered the camp. So the biggest departure from reality was we gave Edgar a chance to approach Abiko’s ghost and say he’s not afraid, and he is ready for this next chapter in his life.

CADY: Could you tell us about some of the other characters?

NEER: At the time Edgar was in the camp, he had a wife with a toddler, who were sequestered in a different building. And he was given conjugal rights. She actually conceived and had a son while they were in the camp.

And it was evident from the memoir that women figure prominently in Edgar’s life. His wife, his mother, women from his past, like his first piano teacher. There’s an aria devoted to her. These are people who are clarion. They keep coming back to him as mentors in his mind.

In the throes of beriberi and hallucinating, we even brought a female character from his future to visit him, which was a voice teacher that he established himself with when he moved to New York City after the war. And that became another structural device of a mother earth type figure helping him solve these problems in his mind.

A lot of scenes happen during sleep, with the notion that when we dream, we are figuring out the riddles of the day. And so Matt and I were interested in these female characters who help him figure out this life’s riddle of what he’s supposed to do and become, and what meaning can life have after this hellish place he has been in.

CADY: Being a singer and librettist seems like such a natural fit, but I can’t think of any other singer/librettists, could you tell me more about that?

NEER: I’m a trained singer, and I’ve been a performer for about 30 years now, both on stage and in concert. I like to keep things shaken up so around the early 2000s, I started having ideas for libretti or song cycle texts, and writing them on little pieces of paper and thinking somebody would get a lot of use out of these. And then a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try writing them?” And I started working on it.

My first piece was produced in 2006. It was called “Mercury Falling” for tenor, dancer, and chamber orchestra.

CADY: Who was the composer?

NEER: Chandler Carter. It was a different way of expressing myself that is now balanced 50/50 with my singing career. I felt when I started that the challenge would be that I had no experience writing but actually my experience was the variety of material I’ve performed. I write from the perspective of imagining it being performed as a stage piece so I have a built-in economy in the way I write.

CADY: What’s it like performing in operas that you collaborated on?

NEER: I approach the score as if it’s a brand-new piece. The words have totally changed. When they’re set to music, I recognize that I wrote it, but it’s very different.

I had a workshop with students at a university in Ohio and I compared it to being Michael Phelps or Greg Louganis. You’re either an Olympic swimmer or you’re an Olympic diver. They’re two different sports, but the pool is the same.

My collaboration with Matt and Experiments in Opera is so meaningful to me because it forced me to think about libretto writing in a different way, because of Matt’s approach to music and how he sees the musical message and structure of the piece.

CADY: How did the collaboration of And Here We Are come about?

NEER:  Matt approached me and this topic was completely new to me. So And Here We Are was a different trajectory for me as a writer, but I knew what the structure of the piece was, and that there was a protagonist. The memoirs of Edgar were a valuable piece of real estate.

The historical aspect is actually my favorite part. I love delving in and finding out as much as I can about something I previously had no knowledge of. And after I did a lot of research the piece was actually written quickly.

One of the road blocks for me from the beginning was how we would produce this piece. I was so impressed by an Experiments in Opera production of Sisyphus because of the economy of the cast. And I said to Matt, “I don’t know how to tell this story with just a few singers.”

Fast forward being in Paris on a singing gig and I went to the Guimet Museum, the Asian arts museum. A hall had shadow puppetry of all Asian backgrounds and origins. It immediately dawned on me that would be a great way to tell the story because you could go to town with these hallucinations and not have to worry about special effects. But also you could still have an economy of singers, three or four singers, but have them sing multiple roles. And you could bring in this Filipino-Javanese influence into the story.

So I emailed Matt and said, “I have a great idea. I can’t wait to talk to you about it.” I was scared it would scare him off, but he said he had been thinking a lot about trying to do something with puppetry. So once that was established and he made contact by reaching out to Jeanette Yew, we were off to the races.

The shadow puppetry gives us a storytelling device separate from the music, with expressing these fantastical words and scenes. Jeanette brings that to life for the audience using a completely different device than people standing on stage and singing.

CADY: That’s funny. I had assumed the puppet idea was Matt’s, because it’s the kind of thing he would do.

NEER: Well, we may argue over this a little bit. I don’t know. He might fight me for bragging rights.

CADY: [laugh] Well, fortunately this is your interview, not his. So what about the origin of the title for And Here We Are?

NEER: Edgar had an affinity for Matthew Arnold. His poem, “Dover Beach,” is typed out in the preface page of his memoirs. The poem is a look into nationalities of peoples who clash, and the futility of clashing, and if it’s perhaps human nature.

So when Matt brought this to me it resonated because I know the poem very well, because it was set by Samuel Barber. We deconstructed the poem and wove it throughout the piece. So there will be a bookend or a preface into a new scene where we hear a stanza of that poem. And the final stanza comes at the very end where Edgar is leaving with his family to start a new life.


*Great uncle of the composer, Matthew Welch

Composer and EiO Artistic Director Matthew Welch spent six weeks in the spring of 2017 in the Philippines having won a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. His goal was to engage with local musicians while at the same time researching his opera And Here We Are.  As he tells it in this post on his experiences, the trip was affirming and surprising, providing an opportunity for him to reflect as an artist on his family’s rich history in the Philippines (1905-1945) and the depth of remarkable Filipino cultural traditions.

Traveling to the Philippines was a tremendous opportunity for me.  Amid the whirlwind of travel and meetings, musical lessons and long hikes, I could not have fully understood how this trip would make an impact on me and my music.  Now that I am back in the US, I can see just how rare an experience it was to take such a pilgrimage back to my mythic homeland and walk the soil of my family’s unique Philippine history.

One of the first things I noticed was that, because I am working on my opera And Here We Are, I immediately became more aware of the soundscape of both my hereditary past and my work as a composer.   In my study of gangsa (Cordillera ritual flat gongs), I learned four different regions of the Cordillera: Benguet, Mountain Province, Ifugao and Kalinga.  I learned by rote the subtle differences between each of the traditions, magnifying the diversity of the regions and painting a much broader and subtler picture of the musical landscape of the country.

In addition, I explored the techniques of performance, melodic construction and improvisation for both the Kalinga nose flute tradition.  In these studies with Alex Tumapang, I immersed myself in the history of coupling poetic syllables with melodic constructions in the Ullalim epic from Kalinga.  This exploration of language and music has had direct impact on my techniques as a composer for voice and instruments.  In aural traditions, the references to past treatments of epic songs has a great deal to do with how history is constructed and communicated.

Along with my musical studies, I was able to get closer to my own family history. I stayed at my family’s old hotel that survived the war.  I also toured through the buildings of The University of Santo Thomas which, during the war, served as the internment camp where my family was held.  This experience was indescribably eerie.  Equally as surprising was my discovery of Kneedler Road in Baguio (my family was named Kneedler), on which the remains of my family’s log cabin still existed. My tour of Brent school in Baguio (where the Kneedler boys were enrolled) to recreate photos from the Kneedlers’ boyhoods was indescribably profound. And, I met the 102-year-old wife of my great-grandfather’s lawyer who was bequeathed our Baguio property.  In tribute to my family he named the street they lived on “Kneedler.” In this way, the trip was truly a pilgrimage.  These images and emotions have already made their way directly into And Here We Are, sometimes concretely and other times as ghostly shadows.

I returned with a head-hunter tattoo by 100 year-old batok artist Whang-Od, myriad assortment of Cordilleran gongs (gangsa), bamboo buzzers (balimbing), nose flutes (tongali), and heaps of theoretical and ethnomusicological writings by Filipino composer-researchers, all of which I am now applying to And Here We Are. Through my research on Filipino composers, gained a sensibility on how the dialogue between extant local music traditions and globally modern influences has occurred in the Philippines. As a hybrid-oriented composer myself, this understanding has been critical in my discovering the overall sentiment of my opera’s story.

The profundity of the trip’s impact can be formulated this way: before the trip, I had already composed a lot of music for this opera that would speak to the American (and Kneedler) side of this history. Following the trip, I can conceive of the cultural landscape within which the world of this opera exists: displaced and comingling cultures within the already multifarious sound world of the Philippines. We think of cultures as having borders, but they are more dynamic streams of fluidity that flow, eddy and permeate.

I hope you can participate in my most varied and refined musical project to date. I also hope that through the deep experience of working through this subject matter, my family’s mysterious and tragic past can begin to heal and reach a closure.

Collaborators Aaron Siegel (composer) and Mallory Catlett (director) have been exploring of the work of Janet Frame, and particularly the novel ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room’ as they make a new opera together. They have worked together and with performers to shape Frame’s writing into performance and have encountered a range of questions and opportunities along the way.  They sat down in advance of a workshop performance of scenes from the opera on November 30th at Roulette to discuss aspects of their working process and some of the ideas that are embedded in the source materials for their new opera ‘Rainbird.’

AARON SIEGEL: Since you have worked with Frame’s writing before, how do you think your proximity to the texts makes it hard for you to synthesize them?

MALLORY CATLETT: I think it’s just the way that I worked with the material the last time. I was making a piece, and there were 21 different sources in it. So my focus was on the kinds of themes that ran through a lot of her work.  I remember when I told you about the book (Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room), I was like, “But there’s this one novel that I’ve always been interested in turning into an opera.” There are a few other of her books that are amazing stories, but this one always struck me as something I would want to work on as a stand alone work.

My process for that last piece was to retype all these excerpts from over 21 books. And so I had these giant binders that were labeled by topic like ‘weather’ and ‘pronouns,’ and I just came up with ways to categorize all this text that I had pulled, that I thought was somehow involved. My roommate used to kid me.  He said, “So you’re retyping the novel?”

So that’s how I know the language really well, is because it was a very manual—it was extremely labor-intensive. It was kind of like learning how to make something the first time.  Because I was in graduate school, and I had resources, I could be very deliberate about the way in which I arrived at the piece. I think that really informed how I make everything now. But, I feel like it’s hard for me to go to a single novel and not think about all the novels.

SIEGEL: That’s one of the interesting things that I’ve found about approaching this work with you is that as a music maker, I just would never think about going to someone’s full oeuvre to examine and make work. My interest is more about focusing on one specific thing, and making that really clear. That’s the way in which I’m a minimalist. I prefer those very minute details for one thing, and not to be concerned with the full body of work of a single person, and all the ways in which it creates a philosophy. I remember taking philosophy classes, and just really hating the notion that there was no way that my brain could actually process the sort of gestalt theories or ideas that a lot of these philosophers were thinking about. And I’ve come to realize in some ways that’s because I’m less interested in those gestalt theories, and more interested in examples of a how a philosophy is visible in everyday life

As I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking more about the way that we’re working together, and thinking about how my role is about finding ways to concretize things and make them real and physical.

CATLETT: I think that’s why I like to work with you, because it feels like we think about things very differently. And I think that kind of thing is hard for me to do, but when I’m collaborating, it’s very refreshing because I always start from the big problem that seems extremely complicated.

It’s a process of reading everything to whittle down to what I’m really on about. It’s a little bit like when I start getting into something, and I have no idea why. I know that I’m interested or whatever. But making the work is really figuring out how it really speaks to me. And I get into things before I have any idea.

When I was working in graduate school, I was also studying with a literary professor there who happened to teach Frame. He was a post-colonial scholar. I was working with this French philosopher named Hélène Cixous, and we were doing this reading of her philosophy of Frame’s work, which he had never done. So it was pretty extensive.

And I think it had a lot to do with what I was really drawn to. And so applying that sort of philosophic framework on the writing was the way in which I understood why the writing was important, and what I was going to do.

I was listening to the radio one day, and it was some piece of music that was telling the Orpheus and Eurydice story. I think it was the Monteverdi, but I don’t know. I just had this image, and knew I was going to do a piece about Orpheus and Eurydice. And then the more I learned about Orpheus, I wondered I how could wade into that story without reproducing those gendered dynamics of the myth.

And at the same time, I was just reading Frame, and her work is extremely Eurydic and Orphic. It has lush poetry that takes you over. But it also has this kind of cyclical death pattern that’s constantly running through it. And it’s all over the novel.

SIEGEL: How do you see the Orpheus myth of playing out in ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room?” Because Godfrey is sort of an Orphic character, and yet there’s not a sense of him being the poet.

CATLETT: I think this book is very Orphic because, in the last part of the myth after Eurydice dies a second time, Orpheus is actually ripped apart by these Bacchanalia women, and he becomes an oracle. He gets more dangerous because he has had this experience. He becomes more of a threat and so he is destroyed. ‘Yellow Flowers’ is much more about this part of the myth, about how the culture turns away and has to destroy the thing it is afraid of.

I’ve never really been that interested in myth. I’ve never been that interested in Greek theatre, but I think a lot of my earlier work with Frame was really understanding what myth is in a different way.

Coming back to Hélène Cixous, she describes myth as trying to find the point of origin of all of these moments.  In Orpheus you have this quintessential relationship of a man and a woman, where she’s always behind. He has to look back. So the question is: how does one subvert myths or change them at the root?

Cixous has a great way of reinterpreting Adam and Eve, which is that the knowledge is actually in the taste of the fruit, and that women have always been the ones that sought out the knowledge despite the risk. But it’s actually in the sensual kind of taste, and in the smell. And Adam is much more about prohibition and law. Like the policing of that stuff. When you go all the way back, then you can begin to unravel it on your own terms, which is what I think Frame is very much doing. I guess I’m much more of a seeker like this somehow. It feels a little bottomless sometimes, for me.

SIEGEL: I really appreciate the fact that in this collaboration, we can help and challenge each other in those ways, to see things differently and also to attend to the ways each other are seeing them. And the challenge of composing is always “what are people actually going to do?” You have to prescribe that in some ways if it’s going to have its own identity. I try to find that balance between setting things down in structurally immovable ways and letting the performers have some ownership of their material.  I think that’s why composers get a bad rap, because of the sense that they’re inflexibile. But trying to figure out how to attend to the form and also give space for the collaboration to feed into the process is really interesting.

CATLETT: Directors have that same sort of rap too. I think we’re both actually sensitive to that. I think we’re both aware of our power, and I think we share a skepticism about its necessity and danger. There was a point in my creative life where I realized that if I want performers to be invested, I have to do things that will undermine my authority.

SIEGEL: From the composer’s standpoint, power is relinquished when the written ­­­­music can’t be heard until it is performed by live musicians. I do a lot of playback and mocking things up on my computer, and I can do a lot of fiddling in that way. But then there’s a certain point where my mock-ups can’t capture the true subtleties of the instrument.  And that’s good. It lets the music breathe, and lets other people take ownership.  It lets performers come into the process and feel empowered rather than feel like they’re articulating my vision or my very precise directions.

CATLETT: A lot of people who don’t have any experience of the process have this thing in their mind, which is that, “Oh yeah, the director has the answers.” And then the performers just execute those answers. We have to dispel that. Once performers start rehearsing I can give performers a suggestion, and they’re like, “Oh, OK, that’s done. We’ll do it that way.” But then I look at it with them and think, “No, we could do that 3,000 different ways.” That the tighter it gets, the more options there are moving forward.

That’s why it is fun to work on this with you, with these singers, from the beginning. Because I feel like they’re bringing that element into it from the inception. And that’s really useful for me, because I’m part of the composing process in a very passive way where I can just take in a lot of information. Where I don’t have to produce.

And maybe that’s why working in opera and with music is good too, because there’s always something to do. There’s always another thing that the performers can focus on. And then I can just make adjustments to see how things change without it being a singular focus on that.


Percussionist Ross Karre is the Co-Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble and one of the lead designers, producers of the upcoming Nubian Word for Flowers. This opera has taken a unique shape and Ross’s role as both a designer of video and audio elements and as a producer working with Ione to help shape the second act of the opera which was incomplete at the time of Pauline’s passing in 2016. EiO Co-Founder Jason Cady sat down with Ross to discuss the project from his point of view.

JASON CADY:  First, could you tell us about your background and your role in the project?

ROSS KARRE:  I’m the percussionist and co-artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. I was invited by Pauline and Ione to collaborate as a video projection designer on The Nubian Word for Flowers back in November of 2015.

We spent about a year working on a visual design scheme, and did some tests at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with Monica Duncan, who’s the other video designer on the project.

CADY: Could you tell me some more about your background in video. I’m trying to wrap my head around it because I think of you as a percussionist.

KARRE: While I was getting a bachelor’s in percussion performance at Oberlin, I accidentally picked up a minor in cinema studies, which had a lot of hands-on video art production classes, starting with a woman named Rian Brown, who got me excited about experimental video.

Then when I went to University of California in San Diego, working a lot with Miller Puckette and other electronic musicians, I was the collaborator who could do stuff with video. So I started to hone that craft a little more.

When I finished my percussion doctorate at UCSD I decided to stay and get an MFA in film and video art. Since then, I’ve done a handful of video projection design projects per year. Sometimes it’s with percussion, but most of the time I don’t play percussion at all when I’m also designing video.

CADY: How did you realize the video design from the libretto for Nubian Word for Flowers?

KARRE: We worked with Pauline one-on-one for months to come up with the translation process between the libretto and the video design. Along the way, Pauline was adding notated score elements to the libretto.

She got about half to three quarters of the way through, and then she passed away in November of 2016. So that year between when she invited Monica and I to start working on the images, until she passed away, was spent collecting imagery, deciding on projection design options, staging, blocking, and talking through details.

Monica is responsible for the video images themselves. I’m just helping design the video systems. She has a background as a printmaker. So in making these cards and artifacts, they’re really beautifully rendered images that look authentic.

CADY: I saw the libretto had a kind of color coding scheme, what did it mean?

KARRE:  Ione and Pauline had a shared document they both typed into. When Monica and I looked at that, we both confessed it was a little difficult to understand. So we started to make time and space charts, which would essentially read like a score: descriptions and image thumbnails, blocking, character maps, things like that.

Their way of giving us information was through that color coding system. The color coding was something like green for images, and purple for cast, and orange for sound design. They would highlight text that pertained to Senem Pirler on sound design, or for Monica and me for images.

Gradually this one libretto document became the working method for communication between all the parties. It’s a comprehensive document that has lines of text delivered by singers or actors, then long bits of text about the staging, blocking, design elements.

CADY: I’ve actually taken to writing my librettos with screenwriting software, because the format is so clear. It forces me to always be conscious of not just what’s being sung but—

KARRE: Where it’s being sung.

CADY: Yeah, and what the action is, et cetera.

KARRE: Our process has been one of translation. How do we get that comprehensive intermediate experience at Roulette?

CADY: I remember reading in the libretto that something was happening on the higher back portion of the stage. And I thought, “Oh, Roulette.”

KARRE: Back in February we decided to switch from talking generally to talking about Roulette. We have this stencil which is a black and white line drawing, that has all the stages. It’s a proscenium view as opposed to a section or plan view. We call it the Roulette stencil. It’s really simple, but it helped Ione and the video designers think about the space and how it translates. It gives you the idea of what it’s like to put a person there.

CADY: Will you also play percussion in the piece?

KARRE: No. Nathan Davis, the other percussionist in ICE, will play percussion. It’s possible that Levy Lorenzo will also play percussion. But he has a sound design role as well. It’s a bit confusing, because a lot of people wear multiple hats.

But the primary design team is Ione as the director and librettist, and she’s also playing the role of The Interviewer. She has a table in front of her with an overhead camera aimed bird’s eye view onto the table. So she can place different cards that are artifacts relating to the history of this piece. Then those images get manipulated by Monica. She’s operating that live.

The sound design is handled by Senem Pirler. She worked directly with Pauline on selection of sounds, both Foley sounds, artifact sounds, historical sounds, and the performance of Pauline’s analog oscillators.

Last on the design team is Nick DeMaison, who is a conductor and composer. He is the hero responsible for taking all the fragments and sketches that Pauline had completed for the opera, and compiling them into one document, and re-engraving them in Sibelius.

Then there’s the cast of six, an orchestra of eight, and a chorus of three, who use their voice in different ways and play auxiliary instruments.

CADY: How were the unfinished parts of the opera filled out?

KARRE: The first act is almost 100 percent notated, and the second act uses almost 100 percent text anthology scores. Specifically, it starts with the piece “Heart of Tones” for solo wind instrument and accompanying wind instruments and sine tones.

It’s followed by a piece called “Out of the Dark,” which uses the same tuning, droning method, and then finishes with a piece called “Earth Ears” which evolves out of the drones of “Out of the Dark” into a more active place.

Meanwhile, the libretto developed following the same rules as those scores. In the second act, the goal dramatically is to create a really long slow-building arc. Several of Pauline’s pieces from her anthology of text scores lend themselves to that slow build. We’ve recorded nearly everything we’ve done with Pauline, from little concerts at Jack in Brooklyn to the shows at Lincoln Center. So we have a library of pieces and we just swapped in recordings of ICE playing these pieces, to get a feel of what they might sound like.

After a bunch of trials we landed on these three pieces in sequence, to represent the three wars. And it works. It’s stunning how these text pieces so perfectly suited this piece.

CADY: Are you using Pauline’s vintage analog oscillators?

KARRE: Yeah. There’s two or three analog oscillators from the ‘60s that Pauline used for a lot of her pieces. They provide sub-sonic tones, but also audible frequencies into the patch. We’re also using, for brief moments, Pauline’s Expanded Instrument System—EIS—to process some of the acoustic instruments.

CADY: Could you describe the Expanded Instrument System? I saw Claire Chase perform one of Pauline’s pieces and she didn’t play flute at all. She spoke, and her voice was manipulated in real time.

KARRE: That piece is called Intensity 20.15 — A Tribute to Grace Chase. It’s a play on the Varèse flute piece. The subtitle is A Tribute to Grace Chase, which is Claire’s grandmother’s name. It uses the EIS system on Claire’s spoken voice, and some flutelike instruments: an ocarina, a harmonica, stuff like that.

Levy Lorenzo operates the EIS in that piece. Pauline had the opportunity to teach Levy how the parameters can be controlled on a system that’s decades old. It used to be analog systems, then early digital systems, and side chained effects that are controlled in a unique way, and ended up being in MaxMSP. It took on a life of its own, and it’s a really interesting artificial intelligent improvising partner.

We’re lucky that Levy’s on the project, because he’s one of the few people that Pauline taught how to use the software.

CADY: So Levy will manipulate some of the live sounds in an improvisatory way. But is the MaxMSP patch also improvising in Nubian Word for Flowers?

KARRE: Yeah, there are stochastic procedures and algorithms built into the Expanded Instrument System patch. They create a really complex sound world, where it’s hard to tell the origin of the sound samples and how it’s being manipulated.

The way Ione has described it, it’s Pauline’s own presence in the piece. Both her analog oscillators and the Expanded Instrument System bring Pauline’s designs into the piece in a way that really feels like her presence is there.

CADY: Will the audience feel a big shift going into act two, or will it feel more seamless?

KARRE: They will notice a huge shift. It’s not just the result of the fact that Pauline didn’t have the chance to write a lot of the music for act two. The shift is actually a dramatic shift. The first act is about the history of Lord Kitchener and the imperial goals of Great Britain. We learn about his affectionate relationship with the Nubian people. We meet a Nubian boatman. We meet his friend and potential lover Colonel O.

Then in the second act he’s on trial in a kind of purgatory because he died in a boat explosion on the HMS Hampshire. And the process is trying to help him understand or atone for his unethical behavior. He’s asked by interrogation with Ione, as The Interviewer to speak to these moments in his life where he has been a war criminal.

Ione levels these anecdotal criticisms at him from each battle: Battle of Khartoum, the Great War, etc. Supporting Ione are these testimonies from a chorus in the loft at Roulette and their sound will be processed, drone-based, aggressive, dissonant beat frequencies.

It’s really spooky, whereas the first act surprisingly plays with the conventions of traditional opera. There’s a waltz. There’s tonality, modality, dodecaphonic writing.

We had to make a lot of guesses about what to do in the second act. But the drama is so clear that these pieces fell into place without us feeling too self-conscious about their selection. And Ione supported all of the research we did to figure out which existing pieces become the bed of instrumental work and electronic sounds for the piece.

CADY: Had Pauline said anything about her plans for the second act?

KARRE: She didn’t give too many hints to me, but she did speak with Ione a lot about that. Ione is a co-composer in many ways. She helped structure a lot of these pieces. So, it’s with that experience that we made these selections.

When we were building the video design we showed [Pauline] the options of this overhead camera, and said this has a lot of parity with older analog video technologies, with a live camera into a CRT monitor. And she said, “Yeah, that feels right, because I’m an analog gal.”

We took that to heart, thinking about it like, “Which of our video decisions pay homage to an analog sensibility?” And we’re doing that with the sound design: the analog oscillators, the way the effects are coupled together, and the way the EIS is built.

CADY: In our conversations with Pauline and Ione, I wasn’t sure if the staging was going to be super high tech.

KARRE: Where it’s technically current is in projection mapping software which is the ability to map images onto precise surfaces. Also the intermixing of a live camera with HD video and stills is used a lot. But the way we’ve used these postcards as a consistent theme brings it a timelessness.

Ione can play many roles, but it’s consistent that she’s a judge or an attorney doing research or an investigator or a journalist doing research with these different artifacts. When she’s organizing these artifacts on the table, that organization is scaled up to these large projection screens, which are also scenically the triangular white sails of the Nubian boatman. The Nubian boatman is played by Zizo from Egypt. He’s stationed upstage right on a felucca ship. He serves as an interstitial singer/songwriter role that helps to contextualize the Nubian culture.

CADY: Was there anything about Pauline’s music that people misunderstand, or would be surprised to learn?

KARRE: Pauline’s not afraid of a pretty melody, and you’ll see that in the first act of this opera. When I’ve seen her improvise she’ll put warm, beautiful, melodic gestures into her playing.

People who know Pauline really well won’t be surprised to hear these tonal melodies in the first act of this piece. People who sort of know Pauline might be surprised by that.

For me, the biggest surprise is that there aren’t more of these operas. She wasn’t typecast as an opera composer. But looking at how intricate all of the details of this came together, I wish she had the opportunity to do more of them, because it’s a super interesting narrative and intriguing way of approaching it that’ll create surprises for everybody in the audience.


Ione, in the absence of her creative and life partner Pauline Oliveros, is the driving force behind the upcoming premiere of Nubian Word for Flowers: A Phantom Opera, which is a joint production between EiO, International Contemporary Ensemble and Minstry of Maåt. In this interview with EiO co-founder Jason Cady, Ione talks about some of the journeys and questions that led her to shape the story and ideas behind Nubian Word for Flowers. Tickets to the Nov. 3o premiere at Roulette are available at roulette.org.

JASON CADY: Could you first tell us about your background as a writer?

IONE: I was a freelance writer, based in Europe—in France and Spain—but always returning to the U.S. In the ‘80s, I was in New York City and was a frequent contributor to the Village Voice.

I was part of the early women’s movement. I wrote for the early Ms. Magazine, and other magazines. Some of the articles related to my family research, which began with the discovery of my great grandmother’s diary from 1868. She was a feminist and an abolitionist, and a wonderful writer. So when I found her, I plunged into becoming a historian myself to find out who she was.

That book, Pride of Family: Four generations of American Women of Color was first published by Summit Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster in ’91. It was a New York Times notable book and on the New York Public Library’s list of 25 books to remember. That book had many different generations and now is an eBook with Random House. It was republished as a classic in about 2006.

CADY: Sounds like a fascinating book.

IONE: I also got very involved with Njinga Mbande, of the country that’s now Angola, when I saw an engraving of her. It shows her sitting on the back of one of her servants, conducting this interview with a Portuguese governor in the fifteen hundreds. He had tossed a pillow for her to sit on. And she said, “No.” She motioned to one of her servants to bend over, and conducted the rest of the interview that way. She was a diplomat and warrior, who ruled as a king for 40 years. I did a ton of research on her. I found the primary Njinga scholars, and by that time, I was working with Pauline Oliveros. She and I had met in ’85.

We began to work on Njinga The Queen King, which was kind of an opera. We called it a play with music and pageantry. It opened at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in ’93. That went on for about eight years of performances throughout the country.

CADY: And what was the premise for The Nubian Word for Flowers?

IONE: It was inspired by the Nubian people, and by Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. I have written many articles on Egypt and traveled there as a travel writer, but also as just as regular person.

I have written about an island over there that’s called Kitchener Island. So when Pauline and I were performing in a city called Kitchener, in Ontario, Canada—I wondered what that was. What it was about, and whether it was the same Kitchener of Kitchener Island, this island of flowers of the Nile.

Turned out that it was the same Kitchener. I began to research him. He had a reputation as a fierce general as well as a botanist who created beautiful flowers on the island. The city is called Kitchener because Lord Kitchener had met an untimely end in World War I. Canada was very much involved in that war. And as a tribute they changed the name of the town from Berlin to Kitchener.

My story in the opera begins as Lord Kitchener is on a secret mission to Russia when his boat encounters a German mine. At the same time, there’s a great energy that is coming from beyond time, and sending a Nubian boatman into the same storm that Kitchener is encountering. Both the Nubian boatman and Kitchener find themselves arriving on an island of flowers in the Nile.

It’s a version of the island that Kitchener knew. And the Nubian Boatman is a much more serious figure. We don’t exactly know who he is at that juncture, but he has been forced to come there by the same storm. They encounter an island that is alive.

It’s a question of moving through memory, flowers, of personages who have been in his life, as well as those in the Nubian Boatman’s life, moving back and forth in time, up to the diaspora of the Nubian people, which is also a part of what we’re bringing attention to with the story. So the island forces a kind of memory. And without these memories, it seems difficult for anyone to leave the island.

CADY: When I read the libretto it struck me that it was more focused on sounds and images than the words that are sung or spoken.

IONE: I think that’s why Pauline and I loved to work together, and the way we worked is that I’m hearing and seeing things. Like with Njinga, I was hearing her war cry. I was hearing the voices of the ancestors speaking. I knew Pauline could do that. That’s the way Pauline and I worked. She was relying on my input in terms of the sounds as well. The sounds are important. It’s a sonic journey. The flowers are alive. There’s sound coming from every element on the island, including these phantom figures who are able to appear at different times.

CADY: Where did the sound of the flowers come from?

IONE: Well, I can’t tell you. That’s a secret. [laughs] They’re coming from various sources, and of course there’s a whole range of Pauline’s electronics that she designated that create a tapestry of sound that moves in different ways throughout the story.

We’re collaborating with Egyptian musicians. And we were both moved by the plight of the Nubian people being ousted from their lands by the flood of the Aswan Dam. Pauline very much wanted to bring that out to the world. You say Nubia and people don’t know what you’re talking about. This is bringing that mystery to the forefront. And we’re actually bringing in Zizo from Cairo to perform.

CADY: What do you mean by the term “phantom opera?”

IONE: Well, there are many who may or may not be alive. They’re alive to everybody who finds themselves in this place between dimensions. These are the phantoms that come alive to Lord Kitchener, and perhaps he’s a phantom himself.

But the Nubian people who are on the island we could consider phantom to the colonial element on the island. So they’re there, they’re seen, but not quite experienced as alive. The whole Nubian aspect in relation to an island that Lord Kitchener develops with these beautiful flowers is a phantom layer to him.

CADY: What can you say in opera that you wouldn’t express in your journalistic writing or other forms like novels, memoirs or poetry?

IONE: Opera is the kind of word that hangs on you and weighs you down. [laughs] I don’t even use the word “poetry” much because people expect certain things out of you that are, what I call, “old mind.” But let me just answer that by saying it has come upon me gradually.

For example, with Njinga, I wrote a piece for The Village Voice on her. I realized that the story wouldn’t come without my writing it in present tense, or in first person. But when I finished I could see it and I could hear it. There’s a lot of sonic elements in her life, like this war cry that could be heard for miles.

When I met Pauline around the same time, I was already thinking this could be on stage. This could be music theater. Very naively, I said, “Hey Pauline, do you want to do some music for this show?” And for many years later she and I both laughed about that moment. And we were immersed in that for years, in a wonderful and difficult way.

So that came upon me gradually, but it came through being with Pauline. I wanted to be able to hear the voices of the ancestors. For the audiences to hear that in their seats. Like as if it was whispering in their ears. And Pauline could make that happen.

I was very inspired when we were up there in Kitchener, and the story started coming to me. It was a poetic-type text first. When I finished it felt like an opera.

CADY: Since the word “opera” has a lot of baggage, or might be old fashioned, is there another context for theater that you think this work belongs to?

IONE: Oh, no, It’s definitely opera. I mean, in terms of singing. We’re also referencing opera. Pauline’s having a good time doing that. What other forms would you think of? What were you thinking when you asked that question?

CADY: Well, I didn’t have an answer in mind.

IONE: Okay [laughs].

CADY: I also write operas and I feel like an outsider to the world of opera. I don’t fit in. But I’m not sure where I do fit in.

IONE: Right. [laughs] Well, yeah. I guess we’re all outsiders— I mean, that’s more what I’m thinking anyway. And what Pauline would be thinking.

CADY: How many works did you two end up collaborating on?

IONE: We did the Lunar Opera together at Lincoln Center. We did A Dance Opera in Primeval Time; Io and Her and the Trouble with Him. We did a film together called Dreams of the Jungfrau. She did the music for that film. And we did Oracle Bones, Mirror Dreams, which was done in different locations throughout the world.

And we performed together. I’ve been an improvisational, spoken word, sound-text-artist, for a number of years. So we performed all over the world together, and have a couple of recordings.

CADY: Is there anything about Pauline or her work that is misunderstood or that people aren’t aware of?

IONE: She had a great sense of humor about everything she did. Humor was just stupendously important about her. She’s not one of those grumpy composers.

Some are unfamiliar with the vast scope of Pauline’s work and her writings. In particular, focus on her text scores and improvisational modalities has led to some being unaware of the many notated scores that she consistently continued to create through the years along with wonderful new text scores. Our Nubian Word for Flowers represents a musical and philosophical fusion, if you will, of her interests and talents.

In addition, those who have heard of her being the founder of “meditational music” may have expectations along those lines and can be stunned by the amazing dynamism and strength of her solo and group performances.

Pauline was and continues to be, always surprising—shaking us out of our expectations and bringing us back to listening in the moment.

Composer Nicole Murphy has been spending a lot of time with EiO over the last couple of weeks as we prepare her opera ‘Mandela Was Late’ for the upcoming Flash Operas.  As this interview that Jason Cady conducted with her proves, she thinks about storytelling in a methodical way and digs in deep when a commission pulls her into uncharted territory.  

CADY: In your blog post you talked about adapting the Peter Mehlman story Mandela Was Late for your opera. So let’s talk about the music you composed for it.

MURPHY: The music is rhythmically based and the construction of time is represented through the wood block which goes through this series of metric modulations in the piece so you always feel like you’re pulled out of time, out of the situation for a moment, and that the clock is this overbearing character in the piece.

The story and the music are intertwined. It’s kind of hard to separate one from the other. One of the big compositional challenges was to create the sense of tedium of a bureaucratic meeting. How can you have enough contrast but still have this sense of monotony of sitting through this process that both these characters realize is ridiculous?

CADY: That reminds me of the book “Osmin’s Rage” by Peter Kivy, which was inspired by a letter Mozart wrote to this father about composing Abduction From the Seraglio. It was this idea of, “how do you make music describe an ugly emotion yet also sound beautiful?” It must have been a real challenge to represent tedium without actually being tedious.

MURPHY: Yeah, you need the audience to experience tedium but obviously a rewarding sense of tedium. It was a fun challenge.

CADY: You mentioned the wood block and the metric modulations. I remember there is usually a quarter pulse on the snare or a dotted quarter pulse on the wood blocks and lots of changing meters. Could you tell us more about your rhythmic logic?

MURPHY: It was based around this idea of representing time. Essentially, the woodblock is the second hand of a clock. The crotchet equals 60, but occasionally it doesn’t. There is this kind of tension between how we feel time and how we measure time. I wanted all the action in this meeting to feel slightly at odd with the concept of time. That’s where the rhythmic construction came from. It’s also something that I’ve been playing with of late.

CADY: So you’ve explored this in other pieces?

MURPHY: Not linking it to time as much but the sense of shifting the grid underneath the parts. I like the element of surprise that brings. You lock into a groove and all of a sudden it’s interrupted and feels quite uncomfortable and then it snaps back in.

CADY: Many composers seem to not really understand that to do interesting metric or tempo things there first needs to be that sense of a groove for it to be perceivable.

MURPHY: To me it’s all about subverting expectations. It sounds cruel to your audience, but it’s about pulling the rug out from under them. I like to be surprised musically.

CADY: You said the music and story were intertwined for you. Did that lead you to try anything new?

MURPHY: The one-track mind of the piece is driven by the context of the story. Had it been a fifteen-minute piece that didn’t have this story attached I would have changed tracks earlier. It forced me to think of other subtle ways to do contrast, to give a sense of forward motion before that interrupting, woodblock pulls it back into the second-hand ticking.

Nicole’s Chicken

CADY: I was struck by your compositions for guitar, especially your chamber piece, Stolen. Are you a guitarist?

MURPHY: I’m most certainly not a guitar player. I managed to get through most of my schooling without ever having to write for guitar. I hadn’t avoided it purposefully but it’s one of those things that doesn’t come up in orchestration class. When I had to write the electric guitar chamber piece for a festival I thought, “I can just hide it in the background, play a few harmonics and no one will notice that I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then they said, “Could you write a guitar duo?” That project sparked a bigger 45-minute electric guitar and chamber ensemble piece. The last few years of my life have been dominated by guitar. But my instrument is piano and some woodwind and strings as well.

CADY: The guitar sounded so idiomatic you fooled me.

MURPHY: That’s just lots of score study and fingering charts. The thing about guitar that’s so exciting is there are so many ways to realize a certain passage. Often I’d think, “it works this way,” and then I’d put it in front of a guitarist and they would say, “We can play it this way or this way or this way.” There just aren’t as many possibilities with other instruments.

CADY: And what about your classical guitar piece?

MURPHY: That was part of the Norfolk festival. They had a whole heap of guitarists there: three different guitarists involved in that project.

CADY: Is guitar a little less common in New Music in Australia?

MURPHY: Yeah, definitely. I know it’s a big part of the new music scene in the U.S. but it’s not so common here. That sounds ridiculous because it’s such a common instrument, but it’s not part of the new music scene.

CADY: You get quite a lot of performances in the US. Do you have a connection here?

MURPHY: I don’t know. It’s strange. There have been a couple of years where my music was performed more over there than it was at home. I have no idea, but I guess I just feel very fortunate.

CADY: What’s going on in the Australian scene?

MURPHY: We have a really vibrant new music scene. Where I live in Brisbane it has really grown and flourished in the last five years. We’re the smaller city to Sydney and Melbourne which have really strong scenes. Both those cities have a distinct sound world and I like being up here in Brisbane because I have more freedom. I’m not really locked into those scenes. Australia is very active because it’s so far removed from everywhere else. You have to make your own projects happen. It’s very local. We have amazing musicians.

CADY: Plus you can have a garden with a dog and chickens.

MURPHY: It is really lovely. Before I started my PhD I had a pretty thriving vegetable garden with lots of fruit trees and stuff. The fruit trees remain but the vegetables have since died. But the chickens are just funny little creatures. One of them we called Kanye because she was the loudest.

CADY: You also composed a previous opera, right?

MURPHY: Yes, it’s called The Kamikaze Mind and it was performed in New York last month. The libretto is from this amazing novella by an Australian author Richard James Allen. It’s about an astronaut who falls into a black hole and is scattered into an infinite number of pieces all around the universe. So the story is essentially him trying to put himself together with these fragments of his life and memory. It’s organized like a dictionary. You get a word and its definition tells the story. It’s ordered alphabetically but you can read it a number of different ways. You can read it via themes or read different letters or chronologically. Some of the definitions make you laugh out loud and others make you cry for humanity.

I used to joke about it with friends because I got this book in the mail and I have no idea who sent it to me. Whenever I shared it with friends, if they were composers I’d say, “but I’ve got dibs on writing an opera from it.”

CADY: Someone sent you this book anonymously, and you never found out who?

MURPHY: No, I never found out. I have absolutely no idea.

CADY: Even after writing the opera no one came forward? It’s amazing!

MURPHY: I often forget about that part of the story, but it’s kind of wonderful.

CADY: You could write an opera about your opera!

MURPHY: I sure could.

Artist and Designer Casey Alexander Smith is the scenic designer for our upcoming Flash Operas show at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6, 2017.  Casey comes to this project with a strong sense of how opera plays in our society and how to contextualize it anew.  Here are some of his thoughts from planning the look and feel of the Flash Operas.

Opera traditionally had a significant niche in society. Elements of grandeur and allure have made it enjoyable for many. For some, however, it resembles a sophistication and timelessness that can be foreign. Conceptualizing a design that pays homage to the mysticism of the art form while presenting the work in a contemporary, easily digestible format was a challenge. The task lead me down paths I hadn’t explored before and took tolls on my process. When it was all on my drafting table there were two distinct themes that stood out for Flash Operas: the history associated to a grande drape coupled with a continuity in aesthetics. In actuality this project involves six distinct stories in a short matter of time. So in theory it requires six different designs. With my concepts I envisioned the space as a canvas and I wanted the stories to illuminate that canvas.

Coming from a visual arts background this gave me an instant connection to modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Keith Haring. Both of them played with the simplicity of the “canvas” and the rhythm of media as it traveled—sometimes out of the artist control—across the canvas. To this regard each piece will exist within its own framework telling the quick yet important flashes that it had been composed to do. Some of these stories rely on simplicity and lack of color while others emphasize the importance of variety. In collaboration with the director, Rob Reese, and the costume designer, Fay Leshner, we shaped a production that will represent a collection of vibrant and poignant vignettes.

-Casey Alexander Smith

Composer Cristina Lord comes to her work with a wide open mind and sensibility.  In this conversation with EiO Co-Founder Jason Cady, she discusses her interest in electronic music, pop songs, and in using text to tell stories.  Her Flash Opera ‘Pledge Drive’ will be featured in three performances at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6, 2017.

CADY: I enjoyed your piece “Life on Mars” and it made me wonder if you came out of a pop background or a more classical one.

LORD: My training was mostly in classical music but in the past couple years I really got into electronic music. I made an album that was basically me learning how to use Logic. That’s what “Life on Mars” is from: this album of experimenting with things on the program. That was really fun.

Since then, I moved onto Max MSP and I joined the laptop ensemble at CSU Long Beach where I did my masters. It’s a quartet and we write exclusively on Max and perform the pieces live. I’m very intrigued by electronic music. It appeals to the perfectionist side of my personality because I can control every sound. You can do things that live performers can’t do.

CADY: In addition to the academic electronic music do you have an interest in pop music?

LORD: Yeah, definitely. I actually did my master’s thesis on popular influence in classical music. I discussed composers who have approached this issue of the divide between the two realms in various ways because I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that there are these two distinct camps: you’re either a pop artist or a classical composer. Why do we need to have this distinction? Why can’t we just be musicians or artists who create music?

With my own music I like to breach this divide. With the opera I wrote for you guys some of that pop side came out and I learned to embrace this aspect of my musical personality. I basically just see music as music. I’m interested in making music that appeals to a lot of people, not necessarily in a commercial way but in an accessible way.

CADY: Which artists did you discuss in your thesis?

LORD: Jacob TV’s opera The News. Steve Reich’s rock band influence in some of his music. Alvin Lucier’s, Nothing is Real. Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle Craigslistlieder. I talked about quite a few pieces. I wanted to cover different approaches to this problem. Either taking media directly, like Lucier using “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in the teapot, or taking instrumentation like Steve Reich using electric guitars and drums.

CADY: Since you also sing have you done anything that’s singer/songwriter-ish?

LORD: Sometimes I sing and play electronics or the piano as a quasi-pop artist, but I don’t know if I would call myself a singer/songwriter. I usually do solo voice and electronics, just because I either want to be a pianist in some other capacity or sing with electronics.

Cristina Lord. Photo courtesy the artist.

CADY: Let’s get to your opera. It’s a hilarious story by Patty Marx called Pledge Drive about the author fundraising money to support her lazy lifestyle. The first thing I noticed was you use a big opera voice in the opening for a comic effect.

LORD: Yeah, it’s supposed to be over the top and ridiculous. The idea is that it’s opening with a cadenza. It’s her chance to show off and be the center of attention which leads nicely into “You were just listening to an uninterrupted hour of Patty.”

CADY: And the flute tends to be flamboyant which seems to be taking off from that initial idea.

LORD: Overall the piece is pretty flamboyant, but the flute definitely gets to show off and take on this role that the opening has of this showy nature and providing fills and accents and doubling where necessary to maintain this level of something ridiculous.

CADY: Are there any other ways you portray humor in the music?

LORD: I have a lot of shifts that happen musically. I was thinking of it as waiting room music. This repeating jazzy interlude comes back throughout and ties the piece together. Between that we have these exaggerated emotional sections. For example, when the soprano sings “as of three years ago Patty was totally dependent on parental funding.” The emotional shifts are over the top to make it clear that it’s sarcastic. It’s supposed to be fun and we’re not taking it too seriously.

It starts off tonal, and then decays into a more chaotic texture. There’s a section where she’s at an ATM. At that point I change from something that’s happy-go-lucky and innocent to something that’s falling apart until we get to the climax which is “Patty will blow you” which I thought was the darkest part of the text. It’s like, “Whoa! How serious is this?” It seems like everything is falling apart in Patty’s life and I wanted the music to reflect this. From there, there’s a shift back to this waiting room vibe as we close off the piece, but this time it’s deconstructed into something that is not nearly as innocent to reflect this loss of innocence that Patty experiences.

CADY: One of the reasons I find the story funny is because I can relate to it since it pokes fun of flaky creative types. Do you identify with the story?

LORD: Yeah a lot of us can relate to that. A lot of artist types like to hear ourselves talk, and being an artist or a composer comes with a certain level of privilege. It’s not really the most lucrative profession.

CADY: How did you compose the opera?

LORD: First, I spent a lot of time with the libretto, read it out loud a lot and tried to decipher the emotional content and any deeper meaning I could find within the text. After I had a trajectory in mind, I started playing around with some ideas. I wrote it pretty linearly. I started where the text started. And I just went straight through. I knew the climax was going to be at “Patty will blow you” and that it would deteriorate until there. I wanted some motifs to occur throughout but at the same time I wanted it to feel more through-composed and go through these different shifts. I spent some time with each part playing around with different ideas and seeing what went with the emotional content the best. It started as a piano vocal score and I orchestrated it from there. The cadenza I added at the end, so that opening part I actually wrote at the end.

CADY: Did the story inspire you to try new things?

LORD: I’ve written a lot for voice but I had never done an opera, so thinking about the theatrics was new, and really inspiring for me. I enjoy collaborating with artists, dancers, film and video techs, but I’m not used to doing theater which is exciting and interesting. I tried to keep in mind how it would look and what the singers would be doing.

EiO Co-Founder Matthew Welch was sitting in rehearsal this week for our upcoming Flash Operas show at Symphony Space, and getting a chance to see his latest work for EiO, Level, start to come to life.  This blogpost, which explores some of the musical techniques embedded in the piece, also touches on the personal aspects of this work. 

It’s been almost 7 years since Experiments in Opera started planning its first show, over which I’ve tried out a number of ways to circumvent the assumptions of how an opera had to be made. More often than not, the subject matter, media involved, new narrative structures and the scale of a work were the experimental factors in my opera work, whereas I was more or less working towards a more intuitive and nuanced musical style that was increasingly less experimental in concept. For Flash Operas, EiO revisited the idea of small scale opera – a concept still experimental, but something I began to get somewhat more comfortable with. In the interest of pushing myself, I was interested in taking a little trip back to some of my more conceptual music roots.

The Level, by Keith Scribner, is a short work of fiction that depicts a scene in which the tension between a couple expecting their first child starts to come to a head. The man, a botanist, starts to obsess about the environment of their apartment, blows a bunch of money on a level, and attempts to measure and countermeasure the uneven floors. The woman questions her man’s sanity and has interjections of her budding maternal instinct.

The idea of a device and the act of measurement prompted me to conceive of the music in a more measured and theoretical way than I had in a long time. The idea of a space being uneven led me to the musical metaphors as odd meters and slopes in the form of string glissandi and vectors in the form of rising and falling melodic lines.

The glissandi were organized by depth of slope, starting deep and fast, covering less vertical pitch distance as the piece progress, and eventually evening out. From here I thought of harmonies that would intersect these slopes in a regular measured rhythm. The result of the experiment here was a new language of chromatically related triads that were slaved to the string slopes, a new way of conceiving the old idea of counterpoint.

This chromatically-related triadic system resulting from the slopes, when boiled down to their common harmonic denominator, suggested a hexachordal collection – the hexachordal set also then suggested triads based on roots themselves forming an augmented chord – a very center-less and floating type of dissonant chord.

Score Excerpt from ‘Level’ by Matthew Welch.

Keeping it real – the topic of the story

The fun about all these nerdy ways of calculating the music for a very domestic scenario is how my life mirrored the topic of the story. My wife, who the piece is dedicated to, and I were expecting our first child during the “conception” stage of the piece, and the work blossomed during our child’s first few months. Needless to elaborate, but during this time we felt a bunch of new stresses in anticipation of our baby, and during which time I became fixated on a many number of things, and those which lent themselves to some form of numerical control, like timeliness, money, scheduling, and not excluding house arrangements.

Keeping it dramatic – Tying it together

Still hoping to create a dramatic work in light of all these anal-retentive measurements, there was an overall design at work which I hoped would translate to building tension towards a dramatic climax, and a natural resolution.

To control the dramatic arc involved continually contracting odd-metrical cycles to heighten the tension with an ever slowing or flattening slope (the pitch-depth of the glissandi), creating a musical sense of parallax for the listener, where one form of tension increased as the other decreased, until the moment of resolution in the characters’ dramatic relationship coincides with the arrival of an even metrical context and complete flattening of the slope (drone).

This moment of arrival is timed for when the anxieties of the two characters dissipates and they make a gesture to rekindle. In terms of creating a world and scene through music, the sections built on the sliding slopes represented the real space and center-less hexachordal floating nebula represented the dream space out of which the pregnant woman awakes at the start, and out of time moments of her interior thinking directed towards the audience.

Since every experiment has to have some conclusive data, sitting here in the rehearsals I think all of this experimental calculation underneath the surface has actually helped produce one of my most dramatic and touching works to date, with a real sense of naturalistic narrative development, and allowed me to conjoin my creative work with my burgeoning role as a parent!

– Matthew Welch