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Nov 25, 2016 |
sacred_in_opera  |

A Look Back: HAGAR at the 2016 NOA/NATS Indianapolis Convention

By John Pfautz
On behalf of the Sacred in Opera Committee for the National Opera Association, I am delighted to share on the success pertaining to this past year’s SIO Plenary Session at the NOA Convention in Indianapolis. Dr. Isai Jess Muñoz, from the faculty of the University of Delaware, coordinated the performance, which showcased excerpts from a new Sacred Opera, Hagar, by recent winner of the Charles Ives Composition Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, William David Cooper, commissioned by Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis.  The performance was followed by a panel discussion with the production team discussing the commissioning and producing of Hagar, as an example of new operas successfully being funded and presented today by sacred spaces. The composer, stage director, producer, conductor/commissioner, and performers had much to share about how this production came to fruition owing much to the vision and support of numerous individuals and churches.

What was the genesis of this opera?          

Dr. Michelle Louer is the Director of Music and Fine Arts at Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, a church that supports a highly refined church music program.  It was Dr. Louer who contacted young composer William David Cooper in 2011 about a commission for an opera based on a sacred theme.  It was in that year that the libretto was completed by librettist Will Dunlap, and much of the first act was written.  However, he soon put it away, making room for the projects associated with completing his Ph.D. in Music Composition from University of California, Davis.  When he returned to the score, he realized that his musical language had changed.  The resulting composition shows more attachment to tonality and Cooper’s effort to use tonal harmonies in new ways.  He has always been heavily influenced by Wagner and his early staged works followed the style of a through-composed Wagnerian opera.  But, after finding success in his opera Cleopatra, that met success with an aria, set number format, he decided to stick with what works well for Hagar.        

In talking with Michelle Louer, the two were looking to create an opera based on a female character.  They found that Hagar has been a neglected character in operatic literature and found her story to be one of powerful redemption.  It is a difficult story of suffering, but one that takes a turn when the angel approaches Hagar in the desert.  Still the opera was awaiting the right time to be launched.          

Along came Dr. Isai Jess Muñoz, a faculty member at the University of Delaware and now recently appointed Chair of the SIO.  Jess’ performance career as a tenor has seen him performing in various capacities and venues.  While in NYC, Dr. Muñoz was heavily involved in church and synagogue music making, some of which led to roles in sacred operas.  While in NY, he became friends with a number of NOA members including Ruth Dobson and Richard Poppino.  While still a doctoral student at Stony Brook University at CCM, Jess researched the oral traditions of raditional hymnody of Latin American Hymnody and like, H. T. Burleigh and others, who brought the African-American Spiritual to classically trained artiststhe vocal solo repertoire, Dr. Muñoz hopes to produce a volume of this Latin American hymnody for soloists.          

Jess has long been interested in sacred music drama and the NOA.  Not many years ago, he became familiar with the late Carl Gerbrandt’s book: Sacred Music Drama: The Producer’s Guide.  Meanwhile, Ruth Dobson contacted Jess to see if he would be interested in producing a performance for the SIO session of the upcoming NOA convention.  Knowing the reputation of Dr. Michelle Louerry and the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, their discussion soon led to William David Cooper’s Hagar, commissioned by 2nd Presbyterian, and awaiting the right time for the first performance.  

Thus far, they had a new sacred opera by a young star composer, commissioned by one of the most prestigious church music programs in the Midwest, and a young and enthusiastic producer.  They turned to Joachim Schamberger, a highly sought after opera director on the faculty at DePauw University.  Schamberger is making his mark with the excitingly creative use of digital projections in his set design.  You can find out more of Joachim’s achievements online, including two recent productions at Lincoln Center.

What else was needed?  A suitable venue.  The ideal location became available.  Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis seats about 400 people, has two organs and a small balcony.  Though there are some acoustic and visual challenges, the production team agreed that working to overcome those obstacles wouldill be a good learning experience for the production team, as well as all of us who are interested in producing sacred music drama in houses of worship.          

Who performed the role of Hagar?  To maintain the strength of this production team, internationally acclaimed American soprano Jane Dutton brought her passion and energy to creating this role.  Ms. Dutton’s Wagnerian repertoire as well as performing works from Baroque to newly composed, as well as her sensitive theatrical sense made her the perfect choice for Hagar’s debut.

This 50 minute performance was actually Act I of a larger opera that focused on Hagar and her son Ishmael, whose second act is yet to be composed.  In this act, Sarah presents Hagar to Abraham, since Sarah is unable to provide Abraham a child.  The act includes Hagar’s pregnancy, her change and how the community reacts to the change in her.  The first act has much to do with the interaction between Sarah, a mezzo, Abraham, a bass-baritone, and Hagar, soprano.  There are two choruses in the first act:  Abraham’s warriors singing of their conquests, and Sarah’s handmaidens, including Hagar.  There are 3 scenes in the first act.  The first two are divided by a blackout and short break, while the second and third are separated by an instrumental interlude (indicating Hagar’s flight from Sarah into the desert.)  The original version is for full orchestra, but a revised version written for us is for percussion, harp, organ and piano, which makes both versions accessible and complete.  We were pleased to have secured interest and participation from the following world-class artists:

Hagar Jane Dutton, Soprano
Sarah Barbara Le May, Mezzo-Soprano
Abraham Scott Hogsed, Bass-Baritone
Soldier I Ganson Salmon
Soldier II Robert Glenn Hall
Woman Lyndsay Moy, Caitlyn Stewart, Karen Palmer
Men Joey Purifoy, John Brewer, Max Murphy, Dan Ahlgren, Sean Manterfield, T. J. Bourne, Caleb Lewis
Stage Director Joachim Schamberger
Conductor Michelle L. Louer
Producer Isai Jess Munoz
Costume Designer Dana Lee Tzvetkov and IU Bloomington Costume Shop
Choral Contractor Max Murphy
Company Manager Brighton Albright

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