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Opera in the Making

By Shannon Eblen

The success of opera lives in many things, including the invisible details. Decisions regarding how the words and music propel the story forward, and how singers interact and embody characters, happen long before an audience ever sees the production. Unless that audience is at Double Exposure.

A rare exploration of opera in the making, Double Exposure creates dual stagings of works-in-progress by the Opera Philadelphia Composers in Residence. It allows for experimentation and for composers to see the impact different directors, conductors, and singers have on a piece.

 Seeing what goes into the process and development of an opera strips away what can sometimes be a one-dimensional presentation of theater, says Sarah Williams, New Works Administrator at Opera Philadelphia. “It really is to highlight process.”

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And the audience gets to be privy to that process.

“They don’t feel like they are just showing up, in a seat, and something is being presented at them,” Williams said.  “They’re a part of it. They don’t often get to see something done twice in two different ways. We see that internally when we’re in rehearsals or working with artists…But I think we can forget a little bit about why that is so interesting. 

A pared-down production, Double Exposure consists of two different 20-minute works presented by two different creative teams – director, conductor, singers and pianist – following an accelerated two-week rehearsal period.

It’s a learning experience for everyone involved. Often, composers have spent more time writing for instruments. Writing for the voice – and for opera, a highly-collaborative art form – has its own set of challenges.

“There has to be enough time for the singer to take a breath,” Williams says. “There has to be enough time for everyone to prepare and for the orchestra to swell. But there also has to be time for the theater to happen, so it allows them that time and that process to see what does and doesn’t work.”

It makes for a unique experience that pushes everyone out of their comfort zones, from the composers who are sometimes sharing their work with others for the first time, to the performers who aren’t used to singing the work of a composer in front of that composer – a daunting task Williams says can unnerve the best of them.

The experience also fosters collaboration, creating connections between the artists that can continue into their careers. Third-year resident David Hertzberg worked with director R.B. Schlather on Double Exposure in 2016; in 2017, the two teamed up again for Hertzberg’s award-winning opera The Wake World, which was premiered during Festival O17 at the Barnes Foundation. 

For 2018’s Double Exposure, Williams paired second-year resident Rene Orth with librettist Hannah Moscovitch, another successful combination.

Bringing Moscovitch, as well as directors Mary Birnbaum, Alison Moritz, and conductor Daniella Candillari, to the table was also a way to even out a gender imbalance endemic to opera, to create a ripple effect of diversity that starts at the top.

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“We want to create a world that actually looks like the world we live in,” Williams says. “And it’s not typically the world that opera actually looks like.”

“I felt like it was really important this year to create an accessibility for women, to see if there were partnerships that could come out of Double Exposure to lead to future things but also to create a world for them to all work together, too. The fact that we have Rene Orth as a female composer, and two female directors, and a female conductor, it’s all just extraordinarily insane.”

Double Exposure, which takes place on Sunday, May 19, 2018 at the Wilma Theater, will present a selection from David Hertzberg’s The Rose Elf and a selection from Rene Orth’s 10 Days in a Madhouse. Mary Birnbaum and Alison Moritz direct. Featuring Johnathan McCullough, Ashley Milanese, Anastasiia Sidorova, Doğukan Kuran, Kendra Broom,Aaron Crouch, Daniel Taylor, Ashley Robillard, and Samantha Hankey. With conductors Carlos Ágreda and Daniela Candillari, and Michael Sherman and Annie Brooks on piano.

For more information, visit the Double Exposure page.

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