From Claudio Monteverdi to Benjamin Britten, the classical music canon’s best-known opera composers tend to have one thing in common: They’re men.
This weekend, the University of Maryland’s Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presents new works by New York-based female composers Justine F. Chen and Missy Mazzoli. Though both operas take on timeless themes—including love, jealousy and the pursuit of wealth—and are at least partially set in the past, they aim to resonate with modern audiences.
“These works show opera is still living and breathing,” said soprano Kira Neary, a second-year Master of Music student who will perform in Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” on Saturday night. The 2018 piece, which The Washington Post called “a true opera of our time,” is a commentary on the American dream as experienced by the Zegners, a fictional family of 1860s homesteaders.
“Of course, there will always be a certain joy for me in performing works from the 18th and 19th centuries,” Neary said, “but there is something so exciting about a work written by a young, contemporary voice, with a message that is so timely.”
Chen’s “TWA,” commissioned by MOS and composed in collaboration with its singers, was inspired by the historic folk ballad “The Twa Sisters,” which recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her lovesick, jealous sister.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have such a well-established composer write a work for our singers,” said MOS Director Craig Kier. “This is our form of scholarship. This is our form of research. And this is our way of moving the operatic canon forward.”
Chen signed on librettist Jaqueline Goldfinger to create an episodic work in two acts. The first retells the dramatic tale, while the second looks at the story through the present-day lens of social media and internet trolls.
“I want to make opera something that everyone feels is relevant to their lives now,” said Goldfinger. “Canonical works are great works, and they should be performed. But if we’re making something new for today’s audiences, it should reflect their lives. This is really an opera for all.”
Throughout the process, Chen and Goldfinger met with MOS students, individually and as a group. Chen called the singers “fascinating individuals” and said: “I’m so happy to be working with them.”
For first-year Master of Music student Claire Marguerite Iverson, a soprano who will perform in “TWA” as a sister in the present-day, working with Chen and Goldfinger has been unforgettable.
“As singers, we can be left wondering what composers like Mozart intended, but seeing an actual person as they try and understand how they want to tell a story is amazing,” she said. “We’ve seen it come to life in front of our eyes.”
Article by Jessica Weis ’05 for the University of Maryland’s Maryland Today.