Opera Philadelphia

Published9 May 2014

A Coffin in Egypt starring Frederica von Stade makes its East Coast Premiere June 6-15

New chamber opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon is the third production from Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program

Legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade has performed many of opera’s greatest roles in her storied career that began in 1970. In June, she makes her Opera Philadelphia debut in an incredible new role written just for her, in the East Coast Premiere of A Coffin in Egypt by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist/director Leonard Foglia.

A Coffin in Egypt is a chamber opera in one act, based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote (1916-2009). Co-commissioned and co-produced by Houston Grand Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, it tells the story of 90-year-old grand dame Myrtle Bledsoe (von Stade), who has outlived her philandering husband, Hunter (actor David Matranga, who ages 40 years during the course of the opera), her daughters, and virtually everyone else in Egypt, Texas. In this tale of adultery, deception, murder, and lost beauty, Myrtle is determined to finally free herself of all the anger, resentment, and hate that has ruled her life.

Performed in English with English supertitles, the 80-minute opera was hailed as “a splendid opera” by The Los Angeles Times. The beloved Flicka, as von Stade is known, never leaves the stage as she reflects on her life in a tour-de-force performance, accompanied by four actors and a quartet of gospel singers heard from an African-American church adjacent to the Bledsoe plantation in Egypt, Texas, where the cathartic events of Myrtle's life play out.. The audience initially believes it is settling in for a quaint chat with a sweet old lady; instead we are taken on a deep journey with a wounded but noble heart, getting to know a character not always sympathetic but ultimately understandable.

“We are delighted that Frederica von Stade believed so strongly in this piece that she was willingly lured out of retirement to take on the role of Myrtle Bledsoe,” said David B. Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia. “As the third opera from our American Repertoire Program, our commitment to present one new American opera per year for ten seasons, A Coffin in Egypt tells a uniquely American story.

Ricky Ian Gordon has written a diverse range of works, from a grand opera based on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to a quartet of small-scale musicals with Tina Landau, to the moving chamber opera Green Sneakers, scored for string quartet and an empty chair. “When I read Horton Foote’s play A Coffin in Egypt, I thought it was kind of gothic,” said the composer. “It felt immediately like the ‘stuff’ of opera. I’ve heard Flicka’s voice since I was a child—she’s been singing since I grew to love singing—so it was easy to write for her. The piece fits her like a glove.”

Librettist and director Leonard Foglia worked closely with the late playwright Horton Foote on a number of plays, and he championed the idea of turning A Coffin in Egypt into an opera. Foote, a native of Wharton, Texas, was a prolific playwright who wrote 52 plays and won two Academy Awards for his screenplays for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird. Foote’s 1953 play, The Trip to Bountiful, was recently revived on Broadway starring Cicely Tyson, who won the 2013 Best Actress Tony Award. The Trip to Bountiful shares some qualities with A Coffin in Egypt: both focus on an elderly female protagonist; both are set only a few miles from Houston, and both are infused with Foote's characteristic honesty and uniquely Texan banter.

“I had the great privilege of working with Horton when I directed the play version of A Coffin in Egypt in 1998,” said Foglia. “It was an invaluable experience having him by my side as we explored the character of Myrtle Bledsoe and her need to find meaning in her long life.”

A Coffin in Egypt

Music by Ricky Ian Gordon
Libretto by Leonard Foglia
Performed in English with English supertitles

East Coast Premiere

June 6, 8m, 11, 13 & 15m, 2014
Aurora Series at the Perelman Theater
Runtime: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission

Performance times

Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets to A Coffin in Egypt may be purchased at operaphila.org or by calling 215.893.1018.


A Taste of Opera: In conversation with Frederica von Stade
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 | 7 p.m.-8 p.m. (Doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
Field Hall, Curtis Institute of Music (1726 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19103)
Registration is required.

Before she commands the stage in the East Coast Premiere of A Coffin in Egypt, beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade sits down with WHYY’s Willo Carey for a conversation about von Stade’s operatic legacy. She’ll share career highlights, her commitment to new music, and the creation of A Coffin in Egypt’s Myrtle Bledsoe, a role which inspired her to come out of retirement and was written for her by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Leonard Foglia. The conversation will include video clips of some of her most famous roles, including Cinderella, Cherubino, and Hansel. Flicka, as she is affectionately known by friends and fans alike, will offer insight into the process of originating a complex character and the life of an internationally-cherished singer. Seating is general admission, will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, and is not guaranteed. Limit four (4) tickets per order.

Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. The company’s American Repertoire Program produces an American opera in ten consecutive seasons. The first opera in the initiative was Dark Sisters by Nico Muhly and a libretto by Stephen Karam, performed as part of the Aurora Series at the Perelman Theater in June 2012. Dark Sisters was co-commissioned with New York's Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group. The most recent work in the American Repertoire Program was Silent Night, a co-production with the Minnesota Opera, featuring music by composer Kevin Puts, for which he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. Additional announced co-commissions include A Coffin in Egypt by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Leonard Foglia, scheduled for the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater in June 2014; Oscar by Theodore Morrison, with a libretto by the composer and John Cox, slated for the Academy of Music in 2015; and Cold Mountain by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon with a libretto by Gene Scheer, at the Academy of Music in February 2016. Both Oscar and Cold Mountain are co-commissioned and co-produced with The Santa Fe Opera. The World Premiere of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD by Daniel Schnyder, with a libretto by Bridgette Wimberly, will be presented in the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater in June 2015, marking Opera Philadelphia’s first World Premiere in the American Repertoire Program. For more information, visit www.operaphila.org.

The Aurora Series is generously underwritten by the Wyncote Foundation. The production is underwritten in part by the Aaron Copeland Fund for Music.

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