Since 2008, the NOA’s Sacred in Opera Initiative has provided the field of opera with resources and presentations that share information on productions, research, pedagogy, and other happenings related to music-drama at interplay with world religions. In recent years, our initiative has highlighted operas and staged oratorios that engage with Buddhist, Bahá’í, Islamic, Judeo-Christian and other religious practices. The interplay of music-drama and religion has long formed a powerful catalyst for spiritual inquiry. From the emergence of the earliest known liturgical dramas heralding the rebirth of theatre after the Dark Ages, religion’s role in the development of dramatic and musical representation was pivotal in laying the foundations for Baroque opera and consequently modern opera. Today, music-dramas continue to provide a spiritual touchstone for artists and audiences, and we hope that all SIO resources reflect our team’s commitment to provide robust dialogue and respectful discourse that models what it means to produce music and theatre material in an increasingly diverse world.
We’re pleased to introduce you to a sibling organization, deus ex musica. Founded by Dr. Delvyn Case (Associate Professor of Music at Wheaton College), this ecumenical group produces events and creates resources that allow church communities and individual Christians to engage with sacred music in ways that are valuable for learning and for Christian formation. SIO Chair, Isaí Jess Muñoz, recently sat down with Dr. Case, for a segment on the deus ex musica podcast entitled: What Has Pentecostalism to do With Opera? In it, Muñoz discusses how his upbringing in a Latin American Pentecostal church led to his career on the operatic stage, as well as how his faith has inspired his work on topics as diverse as Latin American Protestant worship music and sacred music drama.
Composer, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker is a familiar name to almost everyone involved with classical singing in the United States. Her anthems, hymns, and choral arrangements are staples of the repertoires of church, community, academic, and professional choirs from coast to coast. Her decades-long collaboration with famed conductor Robert Shaw produced widely used editions of standards such as Schubert’s Mass in G and scores of perennially beloved arrangements of Christmas carols and folk songs, almost all of them still in print and now enticing a third or even fourth generation of singers. Parker, who will celebrate her 95th birthday in December, has received dozens of honors and awards in her distinguished career, including the American Guild of Organists’ 2000 Distinguished Composer of the Year Award, the 2014 Brock Commission from the American Choral Directors’ Association, the 2015 Harvard Glee Club Foundation Medal, and numerous honorary doctorates. She was the first Director Laureate of Chorus America, and now, Alice Parker has been selected as the National Opera Association’s 2021 Sacred in Opera Achievement Award honoree.
Murray Boren (b. 1950) is a prolific composer whose works include nine operas, three ballets, dozens of songs and choral works, over eighty chamber compositions, and incidental music for the theatre. Most of Boren’s operas are settings of biblical narratives and occurrences in LDS Church history. In 2007, Dr. Boren retired from his position as composer-in-residence at Brigham Young University. SIO Chair, Isaí Jess Muñoz, recently sat down with Dr. Boren, who took time to share on his writing process, his love of storytelling, and his experiences in questioning the boundaries of Mormon beliefs while encouraging audiences and artists alike to open up and simply let go.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s first opera, "The Passenger," is a searing Holocaust story, based on real life events. It was first presented in a radio play, "The Passenger from Cabin 45," and later recreated as an autobiographical novel by the author Zofia Posmysz (b. 1923), herself a World War II resistance fighter and camp survivor. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who discovered and shared Posmysz’ book with Weinberg, and later proclaimed his opera "The Passenger" a masterpiece.
Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Auschwitz Liberation, SIO takes time to revisit three sacred operas written after the Holocaust by American-Jewish composers. Unless disseminated and performed, these and other works like them, though still extant, are at risk to become unknown to current and future generations. They are of great significance to world culture, bearing witness to natives and immigrants, who gave new voice to historical liturgical and traditional functions post a period of religious persecution and horrific acts carried out in the name of ethnic cleansing.
Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is replete with Enlightenment ideals, including the celebration of reason, knowledge, freedom, and the quest for individual happiness. The pursuit of these goals within the opera is seen through the lens of the society of Freemasons, of which both Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were both members.
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.
"I feel I must fight for [my music], because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea." - Ethyl Smythe, composer
Every year, NOA’s Sacred in Opera Initiative receives a robust number of submissions from composers and directors interested in having us look further into their work. In summer 2017, New York’s adventurous company, Heart Beat Opera, introduced us to the composer of this year’s Sacred in Opera Plenary Session Production, Ms. Marisa Michelson.
"With Blood, With Ink," winner of the National Opera Association 1994 Chamber Opera Competition, weaves together disparate musical elements from Gregorian chant to early nineteenth-century Romantic music, to aspects of early twentieth-century atonal music, in service of the story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun from seventeenth-century Mexico City under the rule of Spain. Composer Daniel Crozier, working with librettist Peter M. Krask, began composition of the opera during his graduate studies and, after twenty years, the two were pleased to see a production on stage at the Fort Worth Opera followed by the release of a recording on the Albany Records label in 2014.
Collaboration and conversation between strong women is the connecting thread between both the creation and subject matter of Sanctuary and Storm. This new chamber opera weaves together a fictional debate between the two most powerful women in Medieval Europe: Hildegard of Bingen, the Sibyl of the Rhein and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of the Normans.
MARY – A MUSICAL is a lively “midrash” dealing with the deepest of universal human issues — acceptance of ourselves, the risks of vulnerability, the rewards of community — as presented through the prism of the life of Mary Magdalene and her relationship to Peter, Jesus, and Jesus’s other close disciples.
Welcome to this latest edition of the Sacred in Opera Newsletter. This issue focuses our attention on the works and processes of three living American Composers. We first introduce you to Dr. David Wolfson and his Faith Operas—A formidable collection of four short pieces recently premiered at Hartford Opera. We also take time to highlight the work of three longtime NOA members, composer, Philip Seward and composer-librettist team Bruce Trinkley and Jason Charnesky.
The Passion of Christ should not be acted out in words and pretense, but in real life. - Martin Luther
Composer Bruce Trinkley and librettist Jason Charnesky are no strangers to the Sacred in Opera Initiative. Two of their operas, Eve’s Odds and St. Thomas the Carpenter, were featured at The National Opera Association Conventions in Cincinnati (2000) and San Antonio (2011). In recent years the collaborative duo has expanded their list of works that engage with religious themes which at times, they choose to pair with current social climate inquiry. Both men recently sat down with SIO to shed light on their interests, their process, and the inner-workings of their ongoing writing for collegiate-level voices. Their long tenure at Penn State University has given them years of experiences, helping them better understand young performers. Their musical settings aim to foster the growth of young musicians and to celebrate the strengths that voices still in training have.
Praised by the New York Times for writing "theatrically forceful" and "musically inventive" works, David Wolfson's latest dive into music-drama tackles compelling stories of faith, recently premiered by Hartford Opera.
From Richard Owens, founder of the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria