“Tabula Rasa.” Many know the term to mean “blank slate,” but a more proper definition might be “erased slate.”
That’s the idea behind composer Felix Jarrar and librettist / director Brittany Goodwin’s “Tabula Rasa,” which has its world premiere on May 4, 2018, as part of the New York Opera Fest, started. The concept of reformulating ideas to create new and fresh ones.
Goodwin had just gone through a breakup with another artist she had been in a relationship with for several years. She had decided it was time to end the relationship and as she told OperaWire, she was rather down on herself. One night, she walked out into her living room and turned on the light to get to the thermostat. What had formally been a wall covered with his oil paintings, were just paintings of her. She had been his muse.
This prompted her to write “Blue,” which Jarrar, who Goodwin had previously worked with on “Songs of the Soul Beam,” set to music. It was the beginning of an opera that they had previously talked about putting together.
In looking for a subject to explore, Goodwin went back to that previous relationship, where she had been a muse who had left her artist.
That’s when she came across Alice Prin, or Kiki de Montparnasse, as she was more widely known. Kiki had been a singer, actress, and writer throughout her adventurous life in the 1920s, but she is most famously known for perhaps one image and one relationship – “Le Violon d’Ingres” by Man Ray. Kiki was the inspiration behind many of the noted Dadaist artist’s films and art in general until the two split. Kiki was the one to leave Man Ray.
Goodwin was inspired.
“How many operas exist where we have a female lead that takes her destiny into her own hands,” she noted. “Kiki is everything you want in a hero. She comes from nothing, rises against all the odds and is charming and sexy as hell while doing it. She’s independent, she’s resourceful and she has the mouth of a sailor. Kiki is my kind of gal.
“Kiki is an independent spirit who possesses the inimitable je ne sais quoi. Whether she is expressing a volatile emotion, proclaiming her lover, or expressing sadness, she always carries herself with charm and grace. She is a unique character in that way,” noted Jarrar.
She put together the libretto in September 2017, finishing it on Valentine’s Day 2018 and shipped it off to Jarrar who got straight to work.
But in between, the duo put together what they call a “dream team.”
Kiki & Her Man
First off came the two leads at the core of the story.
Enter soprano Sara Lin Yoder and her husband, baritone Frank Fainer.
“Sara Lin is a phenomenal singing actress. In July 2017 I was invited to perform on a showcase called 7Songwriters in Williamsburg and I asked Sara Lin to sing [some of my pieces]. Through the process of bringing these performances to fruition, I became enamored of her talents as a singer and an actress,” Jarrar enthused. “The performance was a huge success, and in my mind, there was only one person who had to be Kiki. A big reason we did not hold auditions of the role of Kiki was because Brittany and I were 110% set on her portraying this iconic figure.”
Fainer had worked with Goodwin on a number of previous projects and was eventually asked to perform “Songs of the Soul Beams.” From there, it was only a matter of time before he was the choice to debut Man Ray.
“His acting ability is phenomenal and his voice nicely compliments Sara Lin’s timbre. They have undeniable chemistry on the stage,” Jarrar explained.
For Yoder, the role was the chance of a lifetime. She immediately set out to learn as much about Kiki as was humanly possible.
“The first time I fell down a Kiki Rabbit hole, I was on the internet for five hours looking at pictures, and finding videos and reading articles about everything she had done, “Yoder noted.
Even throughout rehearsals, she has continued to assemble imagery and items that she files into a folder on her desktop.
The relationship at the core of the story is one of utter complexity. While history admires both, Man Ray often gets overlooked as a challenging personality who objectified Kiki. And in keeping with the theme of the opera, Fainer hopes to “erase the slate” on the universal understanding of Man Ray.
He noted that in researching the historical figure, Goodwin passed along information that she had acquired from Timothy Baum, a personal friend of the real-life Man Ray.
“People perceived him as arrogant and difficult to work with and approach. And that’s what’s out there. But having that conversation with a personal friend, Brittany found that he was a socially awkward guy,” Fainer narrated. “I found myself finding myself feeling ashamed of the conclusions I came to without knowing. That conversation changed the course of Man as a character through Brittany’s eyes and mine.”
The opera is a massive ensemble piece that includes a number of other major characters including Man Ray’s other lover Lee Miller, Kiki’s mother, Kiki’s best friend Thérèse Treize, and the Dadaists that encompass the world around the two central figures.
Goodwin actually knew about Lee Miller before she ever knew about Kiki, revealing that her son had given a lecture at her college on his mother and his father Roland Penrose, who is a famous Surrealist.
So when it came time to write the story of Kiki, she felt that she needed to include Lee Miller, if in a creative way.
In casting the role of Man Ray’s other famous lover, Jarrar and Goodwin picked soprano Rebecca Richardson, who had worked with Goodwin at the dell’Arte Opera Ensemble.
“I couldn’t pass up another opportunity to work with such an incredible creative force,” noted Richarson. “Having worked with Brittany on three separate productions now, I can safely say that, as a performer, she is everything you’d ever look for in a director, mentor, and colleague. She challenges you, but gives you everything you need to feel comfortable and take risks.”
Richardson, a California native, was particularly excited about the prospect of taking on a character that has a dual personality in the show, as she is more often referred to as “The Jazz Singer” than she is Miller.
“In real life, [Lee Miller is] much more prominent in Man’s life story than Kiki’s. However, in the opera, Lee is present throughout the story, almost as a haunting, foreshadowing figure for Kiki, and Lee helps move the plot forward in time with musical interludes between scenes,” Richardson added regarding her character.
For Kiki’s mother, the duo cast contralto Allison Gish, who had worked with Goodwin on previous productions of “Orlando” and “La Calisto.”
“I’ve loved the style and intent that Brittany has brought to the Baroque operas I’ve worked with her on recently, and it’s especially thrilling to work with her on her own piece,” Gish told OperaWire. “This is the first project I’ve worked with Felix on, but it will certainly not be the last! He’s already become a wonderful collaborating partner for some of the repertoire I sing, bringing energy, joy, and enthusiasm to every rehearsal we have. I’m also amazed at how he wrote an aria so well-suited to my voice, having only heard me a few times.”
“Her voice has a very rich and dark color and she has an amazing and rare ability to sing exceptionally well below the staff. The role of Mrs. Prin/Wine Mom was very important to me because the opening tune is one of my favorite melodies from the whole work,” stated Jarrar.
Soprano Eugenia Forteza will be a triple threat in the opera, taking on the roles of Kiki’s best friend Thérèse Treize, the Dada Queen, and the Backup Singer. Forteza met Goodwin and Jarrar while collaborating with them through her social media platform 360 of Opera in the summer of 2017.
“I immediately fell in love with them, their artistry and their work,” Forteza told OperaWire. “When I saw they were working on a World Premiere for 2018, I knew I really wanted to work with them and that this project would be something very special.”
For Felix Jarrar and Goodwin, there was no doubt of the qualities the French-Argentine soprano would bring to the role.
“She is such a seasoned and accomplished singing actress and I was extremely excited at the prospect of having an opportunity to write virtuosic and stratospheric coloratura passages that could be performed by someone who has her ability to perfectly execute it,” stated Jarrar. “Eugenia brings a sultriness and humor that helps create a dazzling atmosphere.”
Playing three roles comes with its challenges, but for Forteza, one of them was of particular interest.
“Thérèse and I actually have a lot in common, we really look alike. In addition, she was French and was a gym and dance teacher near Deauville before she met Kiki. I am a very athletic person, I am French as well, and Deauville holds a special place in my heart.”
Also, in the opera is popstar Petra Jarrar, who is Felix Jarrar’s younger sister. She interprets Juliette, another of Kiki’s best friends.
“In her past time, Kiki enjoyed hanging out and relishing in her socialite self at Le Jockey and performing for her adoring fans. Oftentimes, Juliette would perform with her. Throughout the show, Juliette and Therese, Kiki’s other close friend, follow her along on her adventures, keep tabs on her, and making sure no one messes with their girl,” Petra Jarrar explained. “The special bond Kiki had with her friends was unique and special, and I hope to convey to the audience the love and protectiveness they had for their dear and mystifying friend.”
Filling Out the Dream Team
Finally, the roles of the Dadaists will be played by Marques Hollie, Walter Rodriguez, Geoff Pickor, and Liz Bouk. Additionally, Kelsey Mogenenson will portray the roles of Marie and a model.
“These guys are AWESOME. Walter and Geoff have been long time actor buddies of mine and I brought them in immediately because I really wanted to add their vivacious spirits to the piece,” Goodwin noted. “Having them around playing a million bit roles and artists Arp & Picabia in the Dada movement is hilarious and exciting.
“Marques is portraying Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray’s mentor and dear friend. He is bringing so much to this role from his research, it is quite inspiring. Then we have my buddy Liz Bouk as the pioneer of the movement, Tristan Tzara. Liz brings so much spirit and thought to every role he creates and I knew Tzara was just the role for him, to explain to the world that ‘Dada is born from crisis’ and ‘we are taking care of it!’”
Bouk’s involvement is particularly unique, with the mezzo soprano noting that the experience is the chance of a lifetime.
Bouk met Felix Jarrar and Goodwin during “A Christmas Carol” when his life was undergoing a major change.
“I was coming out as transgender — of realizing that I’d been living my entire life in the wrong body,” Bouk noted. “I wasn’t ready to talk about it publicly, but I told Felix and Brittany, and they were incredibly loving and supportive during that very tender personal time.”
For Bouk, Tzara will be “the first male role I’ll bring to life as a man myself. He’s my own ‘tabula rasa,’my own way of starting over. How he creates new art that breaks from convention is similar to how I have been re-creating myself and breaking from traditional gender-norms and boundaries in my own life.”
Having the dream team assembled was only the beginning. Acquiring the coveted financial resources to make the project come together was the next step.
Enter “Kickstarting Kiki,” a Kickstarter Campaign launched in November 2017.
“I never had crowd funded before and I’m the poor generous idiot who donates coffee money to any little birthday charity or art project I see on Facebook and I figured everyone does the same, right?” Goodwin admitted.
But it never met those expectations. Despite thorough work from all the participants throughout November and December, “Tabula Rasa” only managed $1,000 of its $10,000 goal. Since Kickstarter requires a goal to be met in full, the group wound up with nothing.
It was a low point, the opera they had hoped to open in May seemingly further out of reach.
“I lost a lot of sleep. I was scared we made promises we couldnt keep,” noted Goodwin.
“We did everything we could to the best of our abilities, and a lot of the reasons that campaign did not succeed were out of our hands,” Felix Jarrar noted.
But they weren’t ready to give up. They never had. And what they did next proved the turning point.
“The magic of this team is that we have overcome so much to put Tabula on its feet. Every time a problem comes up, between all of us we find a solution,” Forteza explained.
The first step was to apply for grant and the production was ultimately made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, funds from the Sparkplug Foundation, and materials from Materials for the Arts.
But Goodwin and Felix Jarrar had another idea up their sleeves – “Hello Gorgeous.”
“‘Hello Gorgeous’ was born this past winter, once we did not hit the Kickstarter goal,” Forteza explained. “We had three full recitals with three completely different programs of female-empowerment driven art song, arias, duets and Tabula Rasa previews.
“For the last one, we teamed up with Groupmuse, a wonderful organization supporting classical music house concerts. All of this was a lot of work but it paid off, and mostly it was an immense pleasure to make all this music with this team, who I now consider family.”
For Petra Jarrar, the concert series was “without a doubt, the most important part in the making of ‘Tabula.’ It highlighted all the females who would be taking the stage later in May in their various roles. Giving the ladies of ‘Tabula’ a platform each month to show off their skills to an audience was awesome. We got to tell our stories in a way no one else would have been able to know about them before.”
“I came away from them feeling open and ready to create and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way,” Fainer related. “We all took that energy and gave it to ‘Tabula Rasa.’”
Musical Light At the End of the Tunnel
From there the opera had the freedom to take off and come into its own. Music rehearsals kicked off in early April with a full workshop performance to showcase the opera’s music in full on April 15 in Brooklyn.
“The music is very eclectic. Kiki’s music is based on a mixture of musical trends of the fin de siècle and jazz harmonies. Man’s, on the other hand, has music that is very cold, and when he tries to express his love, he comes across as disingenuous to the audience because his idea of expresses love for Kiki is something that holds her back. This scene is the turning point of the entire opera,” Jarrar explained.
It’s this divide that has made the experience unique for differing cast members. For Yoder, looking at Jarrar’s score is often a puzzle.
“I always wonder how the music is going to work,” she noted. “It’s not always clear from just looking at the score and singing the part without the accompaniment.
“Then you go to him and have a coaching and a lightbulb goes off. It just works because he is brilliant. He’s smart about how he sets the text in the voice. It’s singable. It’s not just crazy intervals for no apparent reason.”
Fainer latches onto the music from a different angle.
“My favorite thing that Felix brings to this project are the melodies he’s able to write. I tend to find more enjoyment from operas that leave me with a song in my head and Felix’s work with this opera does exactly that,” Fainer enthused.
And now it is just days away from finally coming to full life at the Blue Building in New York City. Yes, the BLUE Building.
Filling the Slate
The opera will be a unique experience for all involved, leaving its main participants dreaming about new possibilities for the work and its audiences.
“I hope the audience falls in love with the story of Kiki just like the cast and creative team. This is a story that needs to be told and it’s an opera with a wide variety of musical, jazz, and even some popular music influences that would make it a great work to see if you are new to opera and it’s not your thing,” Felix Jarrar remarked.
“I hope this show helps people remember who they are and awakens their senses and curiosity,” noted Forteza. “That is my goal as an artist. And this piece, that has so much of all of us in it, will do that and so much more that we cannot even imagine yet.
“I hope ‘Tabula Rasa’ exemplifies the female narrative in a way that will inspire others to do the same,” Richardson added. “Kiki and her female contemporaries lived such fascinating lives, yet attention almost always falls on the prominent men of the era.”
For others, the hope is that the work helps alter the perception of what opera is, erase the slate, if you will, on what you think opera is.
“Opera, at its core, is a medium to tell real, human (and sometimes mythical) stories,” noted Hollie. “‘Tabula Rasa’ is a beautiful, funny, uplifting, sad, memorable story; I hope the audience leaves the experience feeling connected to these characters and feeling that they’ve contributed to the story by being present for it.”
“There are many things to learn from ‘Tabula’ and I think that the best thing any good work can leave you with isn’t answers, but rather, questions. I’d love for the audience to think about their relationships and how often we allow people to mistreat and abuse us, even in small ways,” Rodriguez stated. “I’d like for them to walk away with their own questions that will make them re-examine their lives and the world around them.”
“I hope the audience sees how much passion and love was put into this opera,” Petra Jarrar concluded. “‘Tabula’ was not just a production where the singers and musicians showed up to perform; ‘Tabula’ was an experience where everyone showed up to create something that would live on for a lifetime.”