Dear Opera Lovers, Performers, Teachers, Friends, Welcome to the Winter 2022 edition of the Sacred in Opera Newsletter. We are excited to bring you news from the National Opera Association National Conference that recently took place in person in St. Augustine, Florida. The SIO Initiative Committee was pleased to present a breakout session on the works of centenary composers Seymour Barab and Dave Brubeck. Two articles will further expand upon the January 7, 2022 SIO breakout session. Philip Seward (Columbia College Chicago) and Prof. Amy Pfrimmer (Tulane University), who toured extensively with Brubeck, invite us to discover jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s large-scale sacred vocal compositions. Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller (Clayton State University) shares insight on the theology of Only a Miracle by Seymour Barab.
California native, Dave Brubeck, began his musical studies as a classical pianist, though later, while a music major at College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, he turned his attention to jazz. While there, he founded an experimental group with some other students called the Jazz Workshop Ensemble. During the Second World War, Brubeck enlisted and served in the army. His war experiences were to influence his later compositional work. After the war, he enrolled at Mills College to study composition with Darius Milhaud, who encouraged him to incorporate jazz into his compositions. In 1949, Brubeck founded the Dave Brubeck Trio with Cal Tjader and Ron Crott, whom he had met at Mills, and began recording. In 1951, Brubeck formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums.
2020 was officially the centennial celebration of Dave Brubeck’s birth. I met Dave in his 83rd year while he was still touring and was privileged to sing with him many times. There was nothing like looking over at him during a concert and seeing his wide smile of approval and complete joy. A cutting-edge pioneer of improvisational jazz piano, Dave Brubeck became known for his use of complex rhythms and odd time signatures (think “Unsquare Dance” in 7/4, “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in 9/8, and “Take Five” in 5/4). Experiments with polyrhythm and polytonality were also innovative facets of Brubeck’s musical style. With a career spanning over six decades, Brubeck was a prolific, creative, and enduringly popular lifelong composer. Besides piano and jazz quartet pieces, he composed large-scale classical compositions that combined orchestras, choirs, and jazz combos, merging diverse styles that frequently contained messages of the importance of social justice and faith.
At the 2022 NOA Conference, the National Opera Association’s Sacred in Opera Initiative celebrated the centennials of two opera composers, Seymour Barab and Dave Brubeck, who both wrote a significant body of sacred music drama, but are better known to most audiences for their secular works. One of the works profiled was Only a Miracle, a 50-minute one-act opera by Seymour Barab, which presents a fanciful look at the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus Christ in which very few of the principal players actually appear. Barab’s libretto nevertheless manages to explore a number of the theological threads most significant to Christian believers and to weave them into a new comic work. The presentation in St. Augustine devoted most of its time to excerpts from the work performed by students enrolled in the Music Drama Workshop class at Clayton State University. In this companion article to that presentation, attention is directed to how Barab, in his libretto and dramatic construction, underscores theological points about Jesus’ birth that are important to Christians.
Welcome to the summer 2021 edition of the Sacred in Opera Newsletter. Although the primary mission of our newsletter rests in disseminating new works and resources, I often think of how our initiative can take things a bit further, serving as an ensign of hope and encouragement whenever possible. It's never too difficult for the seeker to find inspiration within the eclectic body of sacred topics in music drama. Performance practice of this canon, offering us a feast focused on ways the human spirit interplays with the divine, is ever-expanding in its understanding and handling of source material and its shaping of projected stories.
Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was well known as a composer, organist, harpsichordist, and professor. Although his choral and organ works are the most performed today, his output was extensive, including works for the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, and the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. Pinkham is remembered fondly by his students at New England Conservatory, where he taught renaissance music history and led an early music ensemble. They describe his always-positive demeanor and dry wit. They also recalled his understanding that practicing one's instrument or singing, oftentimes needed to come before music history homework. Pinkham wrote several operas with sacred themes. These include "Daniel in the Lion’s Den," "The Passion of Judas" (a cantata with an Opera in the middle), and "Garden Party."
Much has been written about the Holocaust, one of the defining events of the twentieth century, adding to the canon in film, literature, stage, and music (including opera). But the reduction of the Jewish experience to a single event, after thousands of years as a people, culture, and religion, can be frustrating. Before the Holocaust, there existed a vibrant culture of Jewish mysticism, identity, and spirituality. One of the primary iconic figures of this facet of Jewish spirituality, the dybbuk, has inspired many artistic works.
A moving family drama set against the backdrop of war has been a winning combination in storytelling both inside and outside the opera world. In the case of Dr. Gary Funk, though, he has turned his attention to events within his own family to create a full-length opera entitled "Ruth." The story is set in the early months of 1945 in central Europe as the Allied troops are moving further and further eastward through Germany, intending to meet the Russian forces who are moving westward.
Joan is a young female college student on spring break in this paraphrase of the biblical book of Jonah, with book, lyrics and music by Richard Bernard. She receives a call from The Old Man to preach to the Krewe of Nineveh, who are ruining the Mardi Gras festivities with their wild ways. The work was designed with simplicity in mind and may be produced with a pianist and a bare stage. The music is straightforward and accessible for a high school or church choir, and Bernard’s Louisiana roots are evident in the jazz-flavored rhythms and chords. With a timely message of mercy and forgiveness, this 90-minute, one-act, sacred work offers both fun and introspection for the audience.
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.