A First Look at New Operas

| 05 Jan 2016 | 11:39

Four new operas still in development will be performed for the public at Trinity Church on Wall Street on Monday, Jan. 18.

The event is part of a forum on new works, which gives the creators a chance to discuss the operas with fellow artists and showcase their progress to producers.

The forum has taken place since 2011, and the event also marks the first time the performance of the new works is open to the public.

“Thirty years ago opera leaders woke up and realized that if we didn’t support new opera in a focused way that opera in the United States would become just a museum art form, built on a repertoire of largely 19th-century works,” said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, the Chelsea-based organization presenting the event.

The four selections range in subject matter and style, and include a loose modern day retelling of “Beowulf” by composer Hannah Lash, and an adaptation of a 1940 novel by Stewart Copeland, best known as the drummer for the Police. “Beowulf,” about a doctor with post-traumatic stress disorder, was commissioned by Guerilla Opera in Boston and will open in May.

The orchestra NOVUS NY will perform the works, along with vocalists. Pieces were chosen by a small panel that includes composers, a librettist, a director and a singer, and the final selections represent a “healthy cross section of the creative output that is taking place today,” Scorca said.

In previous years, the showcase was for attendees of the invite-only industry forum, but is open to the public this year and will also stream online, as it has in the past.

Often, Scorca said, new opera-goers will seek out familiar titles, or works that offer a personal connection.

“There are many different doors through which newcomers to opera can walk,” he said. “Especially when the new opera resonates in deep ways with the world we live in.”

Composer Sheila Silver’s opera “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is based on Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel about two women in Afghanistan who are married to the same man. The opera, with a libretto by Stephen Kitsakos, was born from Silver’s love of the novel’s female characters.

In composing the music for the opera, which Silver hopes will show in both an intimate chamber music setting and as a main stage production, the composer spent six months in India studying Hindu music in order to infuse her composition with the sounds of the region. She incorporated a bansuri and tabla, an Indian flute and drums, but she recreates the drone of the Indian tanpura through the orchestra, and will first hear the sounds come together at the showcase.

Silver hopes for a premiere sometime in 2018, and thinks staging this work in the United States is important, especially now.

“We see [the characters] as people, not as clichés,” she said. “Having this opera on stage will send the message to the world that not all Americans are Islamophobic.”

“Dream of the Red Chamber,” librettist and playwright David Henry Hwang’s new work with composer Bright Sheng, is a love story based on the 18th-century novel of the same name. Tackling the source material, which is considered one of the most significant pieces of Chinese literature with its own field of study called Redology, was a “daunting task,” Hwang said, a project that began over a year ago with Sheng, after Hwang read the lengthy book.

Hwang, who wrote the 1988 Tony-winning play “M. Butterfly, ” said hearing the work performed shows where room for changes exist; sometimes story elements seem confusing, or the audience doesn’t respond in an expected way. The creators workshopped the opera on piano in Hong Kong earlier this year, which informed certain changes, but will hear the full orchestration for the first time during the showcase. The show will open in September at San Francisco Opera.

“In live theater the audience is the final piece of the collaboration,” said Hwang. “They’re the last collaborators to enter the process.”