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.
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.