This is what I learned in Opera Camp, which is how my family and I referred to the American Lyric Theater’s Composer-Librettist Development Program: find a story that sings when the composer reads it. The story will have been inside her all along, inside the musicians so that they can find and perform it, and inside the audience, waiting — needing — to be expressed. They will hear it and be relieved not to be alone with the love and death.
The Gospel According to Nana spoke of love and death to composer Liliya Ugay. She commuted to our program at Opera America headquarters in New York from Yale. I commuted from Philly. Sometimes, after class, we’d email each other from our trains, tired, but hype with ideas: she, chug-chug-chugging north, me, south.
Like Advent and Christmas, this is a story about family. And it’s in family that we first learn. In the Holy Family, the baby is born to an unwed teen mother, laid in the animals’ trough. Her reluctant fiancè has been forced to drag the adopted family-to-be across the Mediterranean because imperial Rome demands they be counted and taxed. They just escape a slaughter of babies by the powerful governor bent on keeping that power.
Onto that God-awful story we hang the ornament of our art. From sugar plums to spirituals, things done and left undone, gratitude and shame spill into the season, and the mash-up of love and death is all too much for us to bear. So we write and rhyme and draw and dance and sing. We call on our ancestors to help us. Or we beg them not to haunt us as we struggle to find love that is not just their old furniture with slipcovers, but coming toward us, waiting to be born new, like Epiphany.
No doubt this has everything to do with the title, The Gospel According to Nana, which I tried to wiggle out of, but Liliya wouldn’t let me.
So, my Christmas offering this year is not mine, but ours, because, as we also learned in Opera Camp, every artist — each and every person who brings the opera into being— co-creates the piece. These wise and whimsical line drawings of the singers by Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Signe Wilkinson visualize how the audience co-creates, too. For the grand finale of the Cathedral Village Black Arts Festival, only 35 socially-distanced people could be admitted into the performance hall. Signe was one. She sketched onto the hard copies of the libretto handed out in place of superscripts. They capture the moment. Other people gathered to watch on video in similarly socially-distanced overflow rooms. But all of it challenged the residential-grade WiFi at the complex. Two hundred viewers began with interest and dropped off, frustrated.
Our new video of The Gospel According to Nana has been remastered by producer Timothy Shepherd, whose questions about the piece from before rehearsals at the Academy of Vocal Arts (thanks to pianist and AVA Assistant to the Music Director/Librarian José Melendez) made me rethink and relearn it. Timothy also received echoes from Nana herself; and, believe me, Nana does not haunt just anybody!)
Interpreting new work is notoriously difficult. And Liliya writes music that is, OK Liliya, I’ma say it, hard to perform. But so beautiful when brought to life through interpretations at once true to the music and also imaginative.
The final work to bring this piece to you for Christmas was captioning, done impeccably by our youngest contributor, UPenn senior Erinda Sheno, who gets the last word:
Working on making captions for the mini-opera included a lot of playing/pausing. I wanted to make sure a caption is as in-sync as it can be with the video. Moving through the video in that way causes me to wonder… For example, say I’ve paused just at a moment when a caption should begin; I get the timestamp down. Then I hit play, and out comes this beautiful singing voice. Which I think I take for granted when watching live or without pauses because, it’s opera, and of course they should sing like that. But when I’m pausing at certain moments throughout, hitting play, the incredible singing generates awe every time.