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
The Sacred in Opera Initiative recently hosted a celebratory plenary session at this year’s NOA Conference in New Orleans, honoring the life and work of composer Susan Hulsman Bingham– who the National Opera Association proudly honored this year with the Sacred in Opera Lifetime Achievement Award. Highlights from six of Bingham’s many operas were performed by students from the University of Delaware. The event was moderated by Dr. Michelle Louer, and directed by Dr. Isai Jess Muñoz (SIO Chair), Dr. Samuel Mungo (Peabody Conservatory), and Dr. Blake Smith (University of Delaware). The NOA Sacred in Opera Award serves to honor and shed light on those individuals whose work has been instrumental in shaping a clearer definition of what defines “sacred” in opera. In line with the mission of the Sacred in Opera Initiative, the nomination and review of candidates for the award were conducted by members of the SIO Committee with a positive awareness of religious diversity and the intentional practice of engaging people of different faiths for the betterment of our organization and society as a whole.
With words and music by Glenn Winters, "Katie Luther" the opera, is a one-woman monodrama for soprano and piano in three scenes. Inspired by "The Morning Star and the Nightingale," a play by Paul Schreiber, the opera was originally conceived and commissioned by Soprano Lori Lewis.
NOA Past President and the Sacred in Opera Initiative's founder John Pfautz, took time to this past December to converse with Kari Tikka, Finnish composer, conductor, teacher at the famed Sibelius Academy, performer, Lutheran, family man, and composer of the opera Luther.
Composer Marisa Michelson may best be identified as an artist whose creative process addresses human conditioning and serves as a medium in which to heal her yearning for full integration of body, mind, and spirit––perhaps something that is increasingly difficult to find in the relentless speed of our world.
The Sacred in Opera Initiative takes time to make noise and to celebrate all those in our field who are taking courageous steps forward to foster hope and reconciliation through their artistry.
The Arts Initiative at the Grace Farms Foundation and the Sacred in Opera Initiative came together this past April to present contemporary interpretations of mystical Baroque vocal masterpieces by Neapolitan composer, Francesco Provenzale.
Opera can be a powerful medium, introducing the audience to incredible stories and characters that can reach deep into souls and change lives. Music is a meeting place that goes beyond the spoken word. The sacred in opera may, at times, be found in the most unsuspecting places, and may lead us into enriching experiences we would not have previously conceived. Jody Nagel, composer, is a self-professed Atheist who uses several Biblical references in his opera, Fifty-Third Street. Tammie Huntington, the author, is an evangelical Christian who was drawn to the music and message of the opera and chose to produce and direct the premiere as her dissertation project for the Doctor of Arts degree at Ball State University. Both agree that truth is truth. Through the production process, the composer and director found a common passion that superseded their philosophical differences and forged a friendship that continues to enrich each of their lives, both personally and professionally.
When a musical work is premiered, that doesn't mean its evolution is halted or that the version heard and seen by the audience will automatically be the definitive one, frozen forever in the published score. Some classical composers, like Gustav Mahler, were notorious for revising their scores after public performances. Sometimes, the realization on stage or in the concert hall does not always match the vision the creator had in mind. Such is the case with "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," the third opera by Mark Adamo.
By John Pfautz
On behalf of the Sacred in Opera Committee for the National Opera Association, I am delighted to share on the success pertaining to this past year’s SIO Plenary Session at the NOA Convention in Indianapolis. Dr. Isai Jess Muñoz, from the faculty of the University of Delaware, coordinated the performance, which showcased excerpts from a new Sacred Opera, Hagar, by recent winner of the Charles Ives Composition Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, William David Cooper, commissioned by Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis. The performance was followed by a panel discussion with the production team discussing the commissioning and producing of Hagar, as an example of new operas successfully being funded and presented today by sacred spaces. The composer, stage director, producer, conductor/commissioner, and performers had much to share about how this production came to fruition owing much to the vision and support of numerous individuals and churches.
For close to a decade the Sacred in Opera Initiative has provided the NOA community with a thoughtful newsletter and convention sessions that serve to disseminate information on past and present productions, research, pedagogy, and other happenings related to the interplay between opera and the ideals of world religions. We owe much of the SIO Initiative’s indelible success to its leaders such as former NOA President John Pfautz, Kurt-Alexander Zeller, Ruth Dobson, Carl Gerbrandt and many others. This edition marks the beginning of a new editorial team charged with the difficult task of filling their shoes. I am indebted to the NOA Board for entrusting me with the honor of serving as chair and senior editor of this significant initiative. I look forward to partnering with many of you, and to hear all your ideas and suggestions that might continue to support our mission.
In honor of the publication of "Laudato Si," Pope Francis' recent encyclical about the environment, The Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Concert Series of St. Ignatius Loyola and The New York Opera Society (NYOS) have commissioned a new chamber opera from renowned Norwegian composer Gisle Kverndokk and librettist Aksel-Otto Bull based on the writings of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Inspired by and featuring Teilhard’s “Mass on the World,” Kverndokk’s opera tells the stories of people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by environmental catastrophes: Chernobyl, the tsunamis, pollution and climate change. The work offers a hopeful, empowering meditation on the way forward from the human and environmental toll of these events.
This coming January at the NOA Convention in Santa Barbara, THE SACRED IN OPERA INITIATIVE of NOA will discuss and present excerpts from composer Andrew Barnes Jamieson’s avant-gospel chamber opera, Heaven Down Here, which explores contemporary racial and religious conflict through the lens of the Jonestown Massacre. In 1977 Over 1000 members, led by Pastor Jim Jones, left their San Francisco headquarters The People’s Temple, for Jonestown, Guyana where most would later die in a massacre orchestrated by their leader—the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act prior to the events of September 11, 2001. Jamieson and his creative team will discuss the philosophy behind his recent opera. The composer will also explain the full experience of the work’s production process which seeks to explore the use of African American Pentecostal Hymnody and Spirituals infused with experimental harmonies and improvisation, to mirror the radical and provocative theology that the congregants of People’s Temple hoped to embody.