Music

Two women and 207,000 baguettes. Here's what else is new on the 'Frontiers' opera scene

Composer-librettist Rachel Peters is bringing her opera 'Companionship' to the Fort Worth Opera's 'Frontiers' festival, May 2-3.
Composer-librettist Rachel Peters is bringing her opera 'Companionship' to the Fort Worth Opera's 'Frontiers' festival, May 2-3. Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

In many cases, they are operas that dare to go where no operas have gone before.

The operas presented in Fort Worth Opera’s “Frontiers” program, a sort of showcase and incubator for new operas that takes place during the company’s annual festival, are often fresh and new in their subjects and styles. This year’s entries, for example, include a work about a woman who bakes a baguette that comes to life, and a drama about the battle between Henry Ford and his son Edsel over the control of their automotive empire.

“It’s an exploratory project. Its purpose is to give a voice to composers and librettists, and identify the works that are in alignment with Fort Worth Opera,” said FWO artistic director Joe Illick.

And for the participants, Frontiers provides an opportunity to see how a work looks and sounds onstage (most entries are works in progress to some degree), while receiving valuable feedback from audiences and opera professionals.

“Frontiers is an amazing opportunity to get [Frontiers entry “Mabel’s Call”] in front of influential, knowledgeable people in the industry, and to raise the profile of my work in general,” said Nell Shaw Cohen, whose opera deals with Mabel Dodge Luhan, a writer and philanthropist who was a major force in turning New Mexico into something of an artists colony in the heyday of creatives such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams.

Because Frontiers deals with contemporary opera, the music presented can sometimes be a bit thorny for audiences used to Verdi and Puccini. But Cohen feels that her musical style will be accessible to listeners.

“I would like to think [my musical approach] is very 21st century, in the sense that that can mean anything. But I would characterize my work as lyrically driven. It is very much about the voice and about melody. I like to use the voice as an expressive tool for communicating the meaning of the text and the drama,” said Cohen, 29, who grew up in San Francisco and lives in New York.

“My origins are as a rock musician. Although I don’t have any heavy guitars in this particular opera, I think you will hear some of my rock songwriter sensibility in there. But I am also very influenced by early music and renaissance counterpoint, and all kinds of things that are somewhere in the mix there,” she said.

Cohen will soon bring her sprawling musical style to bear on another opera that should be of interest to Fort Worth audiences. She is working on a commission from the Houston Grand Opera for a work about the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo, to debut in 2021.

“It looks at women in rodeo culture. Our working title for it is ‘The Feminist Rodeo Opera,’ said Cohen, who is collaborating with her sister, librettist Megan Cohen, on the project.

Rachel Peters, one of the other composer-librettists taking part in this year’s Frontiers, came to opera by a slightly different route.

“I trained as a singer and pianist and studied voice and composition in college,” said Peters, 40, a native of St. Louis who now lives in New York. “I was an opera singer. And then I went to New York University to write musicals in grad school. So I come from a background of musical theater.”

Her Frontiers entry, “Companionship,” is the baguette tale, which is based on a short story by Arthur Phillips.

“It is about a woman who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. To help her cope, she starts baking obsessively and makes more than 207,000 baguettes in a quest to make a perfect one,” said Peters, who previously worked in the music publishing industry. “And then she does, and it grows a face.”

Without giving too much away, some dark things happen after that.

“What I would say to characterize this opera is that it is funny until it is not. And I think that tends to surprise people,” said Peters, who has been working on the piece since 2011.

Peters and Cohen are presenting two of the six works in this year’s Frontiers. The other four are from male composers and librettists. So opera composition continues to be dominated by men, but the issues of gender equality do not seem to be as acute as they are in other quarters of the entertainment industry .

“It is certainly not a level playing field. But I have been fortunate to be part of a generation who came behind women who broke a lot of barriers and opened a lot of doors. I am certainly grateful to those previous generations who made it possible for me to have a career,” said Cohen.

“The subject matter [of “Companionship”] has to do with the power dynamics between women, so I am glad to have a platform to explore that,” said Peters.

It is not easy to earn a spot in Frontiers, regardless of gender. Illick said that FWO received 130 entries for this, the seventh year of Frontiers. The entries were reviewed by a panel of seven judges from around the country. That judging is “blind,” meaning that the judges do not know the names, genders or races of those applying.

“I’ve applied every year since 2012. So this is a big victory for me to finally be chosen,” said Peters.

Frontiers participants present a 15- to 20-minute excerpt from their operas performed by casts comprising students, members of FWO’s young artists program and other singers, followed by a Q&A session. There is also a roundtable discussion among all the presenters and opera professionals after the presentations have concluded.

And this year, the event will see two significant changes that should sound as nice as a soprano hitting a high C to those involved.

“We used to pick eight [operas to present in Frontiers]. This year we picked six because the composers and librettists were telling us that they did not feel we were giving their works enough time. So we hope we will be able to spend a little more time with each one this year,” said Illick.

The event also moves to a new venue. For the first time, it will take place in acoustically magnificent Bass Hall, rather than the cozy, neighboring McDavid Studio.

Frontiers serves multiple purposes for FWO. But, primarily, it fosters new talent while raising the national profile of the company.

“Is it successful 100 percent of the time? No. It’s not designed to be,” Illick said. “But we have taken works from Frontiers and developed them as full-length works for us to present.”

Illick cites “Voir Dire,” an opera by composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka, which was presented at the 2014 Frontiers and then as part of the FWO’s festival last year, as one example.

“’Voir Dire’ is going to be done more [by other companies]. I think it was very impactful, and that it serves as one of the stars of Frontiers,” said Illick.

“In the circles I travel in, [Frontiers] is something that everybody wants to do,” said Peters.

To learn more about “Mabel’s Call,” and see a clip of the opera, visit www.mabelscall.com.

Frontiers

  • May 2 & 3

  • 2018 Fort Worth Opera Festival

  • Bass Hall

  • Fort Worth

  • 7:30 p.m.

  • $10

  • 817-731-0726; www.fwopera.org
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