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Jan 18, 2020 |
sacred_in_opera  |

Works in Progress: "The New Motive Power," a new opera by composer Elizabeth Gartman and librettist Susan Bywaters

In development since 2017, the opera has received workshop performances with piano reduction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as well as in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Elizabeth and Susan hope to premiere a 65-minute complete production in late 2020 or early 2021. They are looking for future workshop and performance venues who can produce the staged work with orchestra.


“The New Motive Power” is based on the life of an antebellum Unitarian minister, John Murray Spear (1804-1887), a prominent abolitionist and later a part of the spiritualist movement, which involved communication with spirits who lived in a more advanced world and could offer guidance. In the mid-1850’s, John’s daughter Sophronia approached him, claiming to hear the voices of spirits who were reaching out to him through electricity. The voices told him to build a new mechanical Messiah, a machine that would connect people across nations through invisible wires, ushering in an era of peace and understanding among people.

The Composer and Librettist: On Their Work and Their Process

Susan says, “Approaching this story, I struggled with my own skepticism. How can I draw meaning from John’s visions if I don’t believe them? So…I tried a new approach: I chose to believe him. What if we lived in a universe where he had been successful? Where he had built his machine, his Messiah: the internet, 150 years too soon. How would he react to his creation? Is it the peaceful Savior he was looking for? Or something much darker?”

However, skepticism is not forbidden from the libretto. John’s wife, Betsey Spear, had a more traditional and thus cynical attitude toward John’s mission and beliefs; and Mary, John’s most devoted follower, had faith in John, but not necessarily in his machine. Similarly, a modern audience will view this opera through different lenses, as each listener brings their own beliefs to the performance.

Elizabeth describes the challenge of writing for both human characters and otherworldly characters (“Electrizers”). Along with creating sounds for both universes, there is the task of interpreting what each character hears, including sounds and messages that other people around them (including the audience) may not hear. “I want the music to take the audience from the ‘Electricizer’ world to the ‘Spears’ 19th century home,’ and, eventually, inside of the ‘Machine’ itself. However, in each of these sound worlds, I am also tasked with portraying them from the perspectives of each character,” Elizabeth states. Do the spirits actually exist if everyone cannot hear them equally? 

Recently, Susan and Elizabeth visited the location in Lynn, Massachusetts where John received messages from the spirit world and preached to his followers. They hope to incorporate archival footage of the place into the opera. Plans for Act 3 include live pop-up electronics, acoustic overlay, projected images-- an electro-acoustical mixed media.  

Themes this opera addresses include how faith and/or technology consumes us, how each of us come to places of belief or disbelief, and questions surrounding the creative or destructive nature of our beliefs and technology. John’s story is primarily told through female characters, portrayed as strong voices by Elizabeth and Susan. The “Electricizers” are a non-gendered character. Ambivalence is a theme as well – plenty of room for interpretation and multiple perceptions of the characters and of technology itself.

Susan “grew up in a very religious (city) and was always fascinated by the challenges and the tangled web of morality – how individuals draw lines between the modern world and spiritual beliefs.” She was profoundly influenced by Carlisle Floyd’s Susanna and is interested in interpreting historical stories that intersect with any of the “big” questions: faith, morality, and the end of the world.

Elisabeth Gartman
Susan Bywaters


Elizabeth holds a dual BM in Vocal Performance and Music Composition from the University of Illinois and is now pursuing a Masters of Music Degree in Composition at the Manhattan School of Music. She continues her vocal studies in the studio of Lucy Shelton, and was also involved with the Prototype Festival as an intern earlier this year. Following her studies, Elizabeth hopes to travel while refining her skills as both a performer and composer in the field of contemporary dramatic work. 

Susan received her BM in Vocal Performance and MFA in Theater Studies, focusing on dramaturgy and new opera development, from the University of Illinois. She recently moved to Boston where she is writing and researching as much as possible. She desires to continue honing her research skills, and has a keen interest in reimagining historical stories that may comment on our contemporary world in poignant ways. 

Both were positively influenced by participating in a workshop production of “Prism” at the University of Illinois in 2018. Elizabeth admires that composer Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins were able to tell a story about assault in a way that incorporates beauty paired with “intense rawness and vulnerability.” She valued the pairing of such a “rigid, stark message” with “beautiful, warm, orchestral textures at times.” Gartman seeks to do the same in her compositions, and also loves the use of multi-talented artists – dancers, singers, actors, and performers who create in multiple art forms. Along with Reid, Elizabeth admires vocal composers like David Lang, Kaija Saariaho, Samuel Barber, and Benjamin Britten.

Elizabeth and Susan met when both were studying at the University of Illinois in 2017. Susan saw Elizabeth’s first composition recital at the University and discovered that they shared similar creative and personal interests. After an impromptu meeting at a coffee shop, they decided to partner on The New Motive Power. Since beginning the opera, they have collaborated on five vocal works. 

Gartman has set other vocal works, including the text of Emily Dickinson. She enjoys researching historical events and translating them into musical works. One composition, “Monster Study” is based on a University of Iowa graduate student Mary Tudor’s thesis from 1939 on the origins of stuttering. Tudor’s work was criticized for its inhumane labelling of its subjects. Although the piece does not diminish the trauma which the subjects endured, the work sheds light on the misogynistic scientific culture of the time. Tudor (called a “monster,” one of very few women in her department in the 1930’s) was specifically directed to conduct this research by another older, male professor, who escaped nearly all repercussions of this experiment.

Gartman has written a chamber work entitled “See-Through” a reflection on the impact and pervasiveness of mass school shootings in the United States in 2018, the year the work was composed and premiered.

Ms. Bywaters has also collaborated with composer Ben Whiting, whom Susan met at the University of Illinois, and who also served as a mentor and friend. Susan says: “Although I’ve always written, I only realized I wanted to write libretti while attending a lecture with dramaturg Cori Ellison. In the lecture, she offhandedly stated that “it’s not like it was in the 18th or 19th century, where children would say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a librettist.’ I realized: I do.”  Encouraged by her advisor, opera scholar Katherine Syer, Bywaters has merged her opera/vocal background, research interests, and writing ability into being a librettist. In her libretti, she is inspired by the verbatim theater tradition, using the real words of historical players to shine light or comment on a historical situation. 

Gartman also incorporates her knowledge of the voice and performance practices into her love for composition, multi-media works, and thought-provoking messages and subject matter. I hear in her work that she never loses connection with the beauty of the musical line and elements of breathing and phrasing. 

The two speak with enthusiasm, mutual respect and admiration, and a clarity of purpose about their collaboration and process. They have built a strong friendship marked by open dialogue, strength of determination and shared motivation. Listening to each other’s needs and voices, and trying to make the project embody both of their opinions, not delineating between music vs. words – both have equal input about all aspects of the project. When discussing their work, there are no hurt feelings. They have the same goals – to make the work as good as it can be. “When you find that connection with someone and your work doesn’t feel like work,” as Susan commented, it’s a powerful creative force!

For soundcloud excerpts of “The New Motive Power” and other works by Gartman and Bywaters visit their websites.


About Our Contributor

Dr. Casey Robards is a Pianist and Vocal Coach known for her artistry, versatility and sensitive musicality. She has given recitals with singers and instrumentalists throughout the United States, Europe, Central and South America and Asia. Her repertoire includes art song, opera, musical theatre, gospel, jazz, string, brass and wind. Dr. Robards is Head of the Collaborative Piano program at the Bay View Music Festival and serves on the faculty at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagn. Previous faculty appointments include positions with Indiana University, Oberlin Conservatory (postdoctoral) and Central Michigan University. Casey is interested in the intersection of music and social justice and has led benefit recitals for Musicambia, a non-profit that creates music conservatories in prisons. Casey attended the Tanglewood Music Festival (04, 05) and has degrees in Piano Performance, Piano Pedagogy and Vocal Coaching and Accompanying from the University of Illinois. Her dissertation was on the life and music of John Daniels Carter.