Works in Progress: Tawnie Olson and Roberta Barker's Sanctuary and Storm, an Opera America Awardee
Tawnie Olson, composer, and Dr. Roberta Barker, librettist, created music and text in Collaboration with Debi Wong and Arianne Abela. Ms. Wong and Ms. Abela are founding members of re:Naissance Opera who will perform and produce the work, that is co-commissioned by the Hartford Women Composers Festival and the Canada Council for the Arts. An OPERA America Discovery Grant has subsidized workshops of the new opera, and plans for its world premiere in May 2020 are currently under way. “In all my compositions, I really like working collaboratively. I know it makes the piece stronger. I have ideas about how things should go but others can enrich those ideas. Opera is the most collaborative art form and I’m really happy to be working in it.” Olson spoke at length with SIO about the continued evolution of this project–– the way the it fits into her rapidly growing body of work–– as well as her own development and process as a composer.
Origins of this new work: Sanctuary and Storm
Although Sanctuary and Storm is the first operatic project for both Olson and Barker, the subject matter was well suited to their base of knowledge and creative aspirations. The composer and librettist had been discussing a plan for a fully orchestrated, three-act, sacred opera for over ten years when the request for a chamber opera about Saint Hildegard of Bingen came from re:Naissance Opera. When Wong and Abela approached Olson about the project, they had yet to choose a librettist. Olson recommended her longtime friend Barker, who serves in a cross appointment and The University of King’s College and Dalhousie University as Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Theatre Studies. Th proposed topic of Hildegard of Bingen seemed ideal, particularly for Olson who explained that she and Hildegard, “go way back.” During her time of graduate studies at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), Olson took a class on Hildegard with Professor Margot Fassler, one of the leading experts on the German writer and artist-theologian. During some early research Olson stumbled onto Hildegard’s letters, one of which was written to Eleanor of Aquitaine and another to Eleanor’s second husband, Henry II of England. As soon as she and Barker realized that Hildegard and Eleanor knew each other, it was clear that the opera had to be about them. “My librettist and I are huge fans of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Roberta’s mother is this great, second-wave feminist, so she grew up surrounded with books discussing Eleanor of Aquitaine and other exceptional women from previous centuries–– times where women were really not supposed to be doing anything except obeying and being quiet and sitting in the corner, and maybe having children if you’re Eleanor, and being a good nun if you’re Hildegard.” Soon the work began to take on the form of an operatic dialectic between Hildegard and Eleanor, focused on their own oppression and goals, with interspersed commentary from the Angel of History, a devised unworldly character whose vision extends outside temporal boundaries.
Olson’s Thoughts on Casting and Writing for the Voice
Olson’s commitment to fostering a collaborative environment is grounded in the way she views and approaches those performers for whom she is – individuals who as she mentions, “bring their own strengths to the process.” Olson’s history with re:Naissance Opera’s conductor Arianne Abela, goes back to their student days, singing together in the Yale Camerata. Olson wrote the part of Hildegard for the rich mezzo voice of re:Naissance Opera’s Debi Wong. Debi suggested the elegant soprano of Mireille Asselin for Eleanor, who received her Master’s Degree in the opera program at Yale. Olson had already written much for Dashon Burton’s powerful bass-baritone. She knew immediately that she wanted him for the Angel of History. “I was pinching myself. This is my first opera and theseare the people I get to work with?” Before Olson began writing, she sent the singers a list of questions in relation to their singing so that she could tailor the vocal line to their voices. In rehearsal this practice continued. “During the second workshop Mimi [Mireille] mentioned that she wished one section could sit higher in her range as it would make it more
climactic and I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Similar care was taken in choosing viola, cello, percussion and piano for the instrumentation. “I wanted lower strings to balance the higher voices and I wanted percussion, because you have such a huge palette of colors and dynamic range.” Workshop sessions of the prologue and first scene revealed the need to expand the instrumentation to include seven players: a doubling bass clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello, and bass. “There is more heft now to match Mimi and Dashon’s sizeable voices.”
The Libretto and Text
Barker’s libretto, utilizes Hildegard’s belief that prophetic visions, writings, and accomplishments, were utilized as a vessel for God to speak, at the center of the dialogue between the two women. From a historical perspective, Hildegard and Eleanor seem to have so much in common as disrupters of the status quo for women of the time. Olson explained:
Eleanor went on the crusades, convinced the church to annul her first marriage, and then fought against her second husband with their children. Hildegard, was composing music, writing books on theology, and professing plans to establish her own community. She would suffer from sudden ‘mystical’ paralyzing illnesses, where she would not move until the monks would agree to give her what she wanted. She would then quite suddenly and miraculously recuperate…Eleanor sees commonality in the strength and accomplishments of herself and Hildegard, but Hildegard disagrees. Eleanor explains that Hildegard is writing books and doing things women don’t do, and Hildegard replies that all of it is from God, not her. Eleanor challenges by saying: ‘Are you sure it’s God’s voice? Because right now it sounds like your voice that I’m hearing.’ It gets really fierce and I have to say, it’s fun writing angry woman music. I’ve never had an occasion to do it but it’s getting something out of my system that I didn’t even know was there.
Olson’s works thus far represent a fairly even mix between vocal and instrumental achievements. Olson discussed how her compositional process is dependent on the existence or absence of text.
When a composer is setting text to music, their task is to interpret the text. I have to be passionate about the text…I won’t accept a commission with a mandated text. I just find it difficult to work with words that aren’t deeply meaningful to me. I’m excited about using the music to comment on the text…the text provides the structure for the piece. I’m also a sucker for word painting. Instrumental writing is excites me in a different way. When you’re writing a piece of instrumental music and you come up with a musical idea, you use it and run with it but if the musical idea doesn’t suit the text, you have to dump it. Instrumental music is freeing in that way but both have their own challenges and rewards.
Olson’s Thoughts on Notation
A commitment to serving the unique needs of different performers’ is evident beyond tailoring to specific voices. “Orchestral musicians and singers are different kinds of musicians and consequently, need distinctively different kinds of indications.” Her scores are explicit in their markings. She aims to minimize the number of questions asked of the conductor in a large orchestral rehearsal. “Singers are often accustomed to shaping phrases intuitively.” When she requires a forte dynamic, she puts it in the strongest range for the singer whereas pianissimo is often paired with lower part of the range, although she confesses, “I do love a floated high note!” In an attempt to allow room for more personal ownership of the music, in chamber-like passages, Olson utilizes fewer markings than in the more dense orchestral sections. She adds, “My music is pretty clear emotionally so I don’t need to say more. Between the music, dynamics and the text, you figure it out pretty quickly.” Olson’s use of thematic material found in Sanctuary and Storm, provides a window into her ability to relate textual meaning through instrumental lines. In this way, she creates a double layer of subtext beneath the words being sung.
In Sanctuary and Storm the music takes as its foundational material "In principio," the final chant of Ordo Virtutum and Can vei la lauzeta by Bernardt de Ventadorn, who had Eleanor of Aquitaine as his patroness. The text of Can vei la lauzeta is quoted in scene three, the heart of the opera, and the music is used throughout as a symbol of human longing. In its prime form it symbolizes human longing as a force for good, and in inversion it symbolizes human desires as a force for evil. The first mention of Henry II, Eleanor's second husband and an infamous tyrant, is accompanied by the inverted form of the song in the strings. "In principio" is quite a long chant, so I mainly use the opening, which sets the words, In principio omnes creature viruerunt, in medio flores floruerunt; postea viriditas descendit, a text about the greenness
of Paradise and its subsequent fall. It is used in prime form as a symbol of the Divine, and in inversion to evoke the fall of humanity, the world, and the human condition in general. Later in the opera, Hildegard sings, "The trumpet simply makes the sounds..." to the prime form, then, as she sings, "I suffer from a heart of little courage," she sings the inversion.
Olson’s Interest in the Sacred and more…
Olson was open about her devout Christianity and what inspires her as an artist, including her views and aims regarding sacred music. “When I write it is coming from a deep place. Housed in that deep place that is me, is a very strong religious belief. I’m very happy and comfortable to engage with it but not every piece I write is overtly sacred.” A few years ago she composed a piece about winter in response to the feelings of a Jewish friend of hers who felt uncomfortable in choirs due to the volume of Christian music.
Sacred topics are dear to my heart but it is just one thread… I am deeply enamored with the poetry of Lorri Neilsen Glenn and have set it several times. I love [composer] David Lang, and at times he can be too much of an influence on me. He has very compelling ideas and I have to be careful. I believe Kaija Saariaho might be the greatest living composer but I don’t think one can hear much of her in my writing.
The immediate future is bright for both Olson and Sanctuary and Storm. A workshop of the full opera is planned for May 2019 in Vancouver, BC, which will also include the first major production meeting with the design and directorial team. re:Naissance Opera hopes to premier the opera in their 2019-2020 season. Additional performances will include one for the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, where Olson is Composer in Residence, and a possible performance in Toronto. In addition to her continued work on Sanctuary and Storm, commissions in 2019 include two choral works, a piece for saxophone and electronics, and then a woodwind quintet. Olson was chosen as the winner of the 2018 Barlow Prize from 356 submissions from 36 countries and as a result will complete a consortium commission for choral groups The Crossing, Seraphic Fire and the BU Singers. Olson’s compositions can be found through the Canadian Music Center and through her publishers E.C. Schirmer and Hal Leonard. Compositions not available through those sources are available on request. Tawnie Olson serves on the composition faculty of the Hartt School of Music. More information about Tawnie Olson including a full list of works and contact information can be found at her website: https://www.tawnieolson.com. Information about Sanctuary and Strom can be found at: https://www.reopera.com/sanctuary-storm .
About our Contributor
Soprano, Nicole Leupp Hanig has appeared as a soloist with the Jussi Björling Festival in Sweden, the Maggio Musicale Festival in Italy, the Pacific Music Festival in Japan and Atelier Lyrique in France. She has performed a solo recital at St. Martin’s in the Field in London, Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder at Durham Cathedral in Durham, England and was a soloist in Opera Galas for Amnesty International at St. James’ Picadilly in London and for the Cairo Opera in Egypt, which was recorded for Egyptian television. Opera roles include Die Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. The Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, and the role of Sian in development workshops of James McMillan’s opera The Sacrifice which was commissioned for Welsh National Opera. Upcoming projects include a recording of the art songs of Charles Widor for Albany Records. Dr. Hanig holds degrees from The University of Colorado, and The University of Illinois as well as a Post Graduate Diploma from The Royal Academy of Music in London where she was awarded the Diploma of the Royal Academy for distinction in performance. She is an Associate Professor of Music and Director of Vocal Studies at University of Portland and an Artist/Teacher with Music in the Marche, an opera training program and festival in Mondavio, Italy.