National Sawdust & The Met Opera Present ‘Opera Evolved: Genre Fluidity’

By Jennifer Pyron
(Photo: Jill Steinberg)

National Sawdust and The Met Opera presented “Opera Evolved: Genre Fluidity” on Thursday, February 22nd, 2024. This was the second installment of this three-part series that, according to the program, celebrates artistic convergence by investigating the intersection of innovation and tradition at National Sawdust. The evening included composer and co-founder of National Sawdust, Paola Prestini, and theater and opera director Lilena Blain-Cruz. The moderator for this evening was Managing Director of National Sawdust, Ana De Archuleta.

“You will hear about AI tonight, but I wanted to start with the idea of opera being bigger than all of us,” said De Archuleta. The series highlighted how important it is that we keep the discussion going about opera to better understand how it’s evolving; transforming the composition and development process as a whole, and informing us more about the needs of humanity within its new forms. 

Lileana Blain-Cruz, Director of “El Niño” at the Metropolitan Opera, joined De Archuleta to talk more about these ideas and introduced bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who will be performing the roles of Joseph and Herod in “El Niño” at the Met which opens Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024. The two excerpts sung by Tines on this night were from “Se habla de Gabriel” and “Shake the Heavens.” Tines’s voice was thrilling to hear in National Sawdust’s well-known acoustic space. His rich timbre enveloped listeners in an atmosphere full of nuance and revelation. The excerpts brought to the surface what makes John Adams’s composition feel fresh and alive, reckoning percussive moments that generate interest well-beyond opera as a single art form. “El Niño” encapsulates humanity as a whole, and the complexities that lay at the belly of humanity. This will be a real treat to experience live at the Met, especially with Lileana Blain-Cruz as director. 

Paola Prestini also presented her new opera, “Sensorium Ex,” and discussed how her team of collaborators are creating a new language using AI while also staying true to the human voice and the human process when working as a disabled person. Prestini’s co-director and choreographer of “Sensorium Ex,” Jerron Herman, was also present in this conversation and the audience had the pleasure of hearing mezzo-soprano Hailey McAvoy sing the excerpt “Birdsong” from this new work. Thomas Ellenson was also scheduled to perform, but unfortunately could not make it due to illness. McAvoy is “a performer with the neurological condition Cerebral Palsy, McAvoy is committed to amplifying the discussion around disability in the arts in order to make the performing arts more inclusive for all.” Her voice speaks directly to the heart when she sings and speaks about how her activism within the arts and her own lived experience. McAvoy is paving the way for more singers to come forward and sing, encouraging everyone to engage with her in the process of discovering one’s own voice in their own way.

For this article, OperaWire has transcribed the panel of this series for readers to follow along with the developments of both operas, “El Niño” and “Sensorium Ex.” 

Ana De Archuleta: We are talking about genre fluidity and how the walls of opera expand as we continue to grow and evolve into the world of opera. How has your background in jazz and gospel influenced the way you sing the repertoire you choose? 

Davóne Tines: My earliest music making was in the church. I grew up in rural northern Virginia about an hour southwest of Washington, D.C. and everyone in my family had to sing in choir whether you wanted to or not. But, what that showed me is that all music making was for a reason. Music making in the liturgical setting always has a purpose. You are singing for very outlined parts of a ritual and I think I was indoctrinated in this area and carried it forward when I went into classical music. I played when I was little, and violin. When I played violin, I was really obsessed with staring at the audience and seeing how certain things affected people, trying to tie together “what is the purpose of music” and “how does music affect people?” I wanted to find a musical truth, meaning bringing all my parts together: growing up in the black baptist church, but also singing Renaissance polyphony in undergrad and having different experimentations. I’m also working on a project with Gerry Eastman at the Williamsburg Music Center, and that’s a whole other exploration of Free Jazz. But, I can’t sing anything without bringing all these parts together.

ADA: When you sing different genres, do you sing them differently? Technically what is the difference?

DT: First, I want to talk about John Adams and rhythm. He loves rhythm and “Shake the Heavens” is a bop. It’s driving big rhythm. I’ve sung a number of pieces by John and one of them was premiering a work, “Girls of the Golden West.” Julia Bullock and I visited John when he was making that music and he played the miner’s chorus while he was dancing in his studio. And I was like, oh ok I can get with this! Because if he is that excited about the music he’s making then we can join that too. 

In terms of going between different genres, my musical journey in technique for the past ten to fifteen years has been about finding my core vocal production. What is the healthiest way I can support what I’m doing? And the blessing of this is once you’ve found your core and how to maintain it, you can tilt it in different directions by changing resonators, changing how you deal with text a little bit. But, it all comes from the same mechanisms so these things are not far apart. 

ADA: I also want to talk with the director of the Met’s “El Niño,” Lileana Blain-Cruz. She is currently the resident director of Lincoln Center Theatre, a Tony Award nominee for “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a recipient of the Drama League’s 2022 Founders Award for Excellence and Directing, and named a Doris Duke Artist in 2021. We are really excited to have her here and one of the things I wanted to ask you about is your artistic journey. You have worked a lot in theater, what was your entry point into opera?

Lileana Blain-Cruz: I think with opera, you know my parents are here tonight, they took me a lot to see opera as a child growing up in New York. I remember us running through the rain and my dad got us really good seats, and we were running down the aisle and I watched the Met Opera’s chandeliers rise up and I was like “what is this place?!” The curtain came up and I saw the most massive enormous universe happening on stage and I was always amazed by this core memory about opera for me. It always amazes me how opera can transport us. Since this childhood memory was about a magical place that I visited, I never knew that I would end up working in the Met. But, I think the game changer for me was as an English major when I fell in love with writers like Ntozake Shange who wrote “For Colored Girls” and others who were already interested in shifting the form of opera. I gravitate towards artists and writers who are pushing the boundaries of why we are alive right here in this particular moment and how we wrestle with this particular moment in many different ways. Ultimately, opera feels the most alive. The amount of live collaboration that happens simultaneously, the scale of like 65 people singing in a chorus, we take that for granted sometimes. But, that is crazy! And rhythm, to have a hundred people actively living and present with each other, giving a thousand other people life, that for me is my entry into theater and has been my happy new entry into opera.

ADA: I love how when we talked last week you said that “opera is epic” and how it also has a different tempi than theater and I think that is an important factor. How do you balance this?

LBC: I think every piece has its own unique rhythm but when I’m working on plays, the rhythm is dictated in some ways by the language in the play. As a director I think you have a little bit more liberty to figure out that time scale over the course of the event itself. With opera it’s like, it starts at eight o’clock and it’s going to end exactly by the time the amount of music ends. That container is an interesting paradigm or boundary for a director to work with and how to follow what is inherently in the piece and how to find the infinities inside of that. I think the way that I work as a director with this is through image, landscape and how people move throughout space, how the characters are in relationship to each other and build the relationships between the people that are coming through. So, in some ways, the work that you do in theater, which for me is very much related to character and story and humanity, you find new relationships within the boundaries of music. 

ADA: Let’s talk about “El Niño.” How did this come about?

LBC: Yessss. I feel very lucky, I was doing “The Skin of Our Teeth” on Broadway and I had been working with Missy Mazzoli on her new opera, “The Listeners” and she had another new opera coming up and she got Peter Gelb to come see the show. I asked him to let me work in the Met a little sooner, and he asked me what I had in mind and I told him “El Niño.” I told him this opera needs to happen now. The world is crazy, the world is insane, and we need something that speaks to the enormity of that and yet also gives us some hope. And he thought this idea was interesting, and somehow I managed to get into the 2023-2024 season. I have been looking for pieces that speak to the massive seismic shifts we’ve been experiencing as a culture, as a world. I think “El Niño” has that scope to it. John Adams wrote it for the millennium, for the year 2000 and I think in sight of that he was interested in embracing both the violence and the beauty of birth itself. I think finding specifically the entry point through Mary, both him and Peter Sellars honor the Mary part of it as the mothering life giving force, and has put her against the most insane obstacles and I think about where we are right now and where we are with our future. I like how these questions are met with complexity. The nativity story is one of infinite future and also apocryphal text. I think it’s a wonderful combination of hope and awareness. Let’s take care of each other, let’s also see each, let’s be alive and present with each other in this miraculous moment that is life.

ADA: I can’t wait to see it. What will it look like once the curtain opens?

LBC: We are going to see a lot of color on stage. I essentially was interested in the Mary’s migrating by land and by sea, seeking refuge. They go through storms, they go through emotional storms and spiritual storms. “El Niño” is a weather system as well as the name of a little boy. It embodies both a human story and a world story. The chorus, the earth, is part of that landscape as a witness and this felt like a major character for me to represent on stage. In terms of the “epic,” this opera manages to elongate Mary’s experience of saying yes to this enormous ask. We continue to follow Mary’s story even after she’s given birth because there’s more to do to keep this child alive. Then we enter into the next phase of migration which is maybe to the other or the other world, but you’re not safe yet. And then you enter into a universe contaminated by Herod who later decides to kill all the children because they threaten his power. And this is the second act that contains that complicated energy inside of it. So, in the way that we had this beautiful natural world full of color in the second act, we have the dangers of that world, the storms of that world. Remember here in New York when those orange clouds came into the sky? We were all like, what is happening? We were taking photos and living inside of those photos because it didn’t feel real, and yet it was. This opera is honoring that surreal landscape that is epic and also right now. The palm tree is the final image, and John Adams brilliantly ends the opera with children’s voices. This is not only the story of one child, it is a whole chorus of children presenting themselves like “here we are, what do we do next?” And I think that’s a brilliant way of ending an opera softly that’s so radical! 

ADA: The next portion of this evening will feature composer Paola Prestini’s new opera “Sensorium Ex.” I want to welcome Paola who is the co-founder and artistic director of National Sawdust, and the co-founder of VisionIntoArt, a non-profit music and interdisciplinary arts production company in NYC. I also want to welcome Jerron Herman who is the choreographer for “Sensorium Ex,” and has premiered works at Danspace Project, Performance Space NY and The Whitney Museum. 

“Sensorium Ex” is a very important work being developed that will open in 2025 in Omaha. I want to know more about this opera and begin by asking you both, what is “Sensorium Ex?”

Paola Prestini: “Sensorium Ex” is an opera. It’s also a platform for discovery and inclusivity in opera, a codex for how to involve disability in opera in a fluid way. It’s also a work of AI as a community impact project that’s been developing for over seven years. It has found its home and will be premiering at the Common Senses Festival in Omaha, May 2025. 

ADA: I think what fascinates me most about “Sensorium Ex” is the immense amount of collaboration that is involved and has made this journey of seven years. What can you tell me about the birth of this idea?

PP: I was commissioned by an opera company who asked me to do a piece about disability that at that point didn’t involve anyone with lived experience. I let them know that I could find collaborators that would be able to best tell the story. Brenda and I had been wanting to do a piece together. If you don’t know Brenda Shaughnessy yet, you can read about her work in The New Yorker. She wrote this extraordinary piece called “Our Andromeda” which chronicles a baby’s injury at birth, mixing the love and grief with cosmic forces that envelop that experience. “Sensorium Ex” is a brilliant tale about a mother’s love and a tale about science, technology and the world’s that we live in. This is ultimately a story about voice and what it means to have voice and to listen. What happens when we listen to each other and understand what empathy can do to really connect us? This opera is also receiving generous support from the Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Beth Morrison Projects, VisionIntoArt, Alphadyne Foundation, Nordisk Kulturfond, and here at National Sawdust in collaboration with the Met Opera.   

ADA: I want to ask the co-director and choreographer of “Sensorium Ex,” Jerron Herman, about his entry point into opera. Is this your first work in opera? Tell us about your journey.

Jerron Herman: I am so grateful to be here. To think that we’ve been asking for authentic representation for a while, and for others to impact and architect these types of spaces without prompt is incredible. I was on my way to Marfa, TX when I received an email from Paola and Brenda. They asked me if I would be interested in thinking about this piece, “Sensorium Ex.” They actually didn’t know this but I had a dream about working with opera. I thought I would be a supernumerary, and just cross the floor with the other 500. But, even before that I had seen “Porgy and Bess” with my aunt at San Francisco Opera. I wore a tuxedo and it was the first time I experienced opera. Since moving here to NYC, it’s almost like an osmosis with opera, where you feel everything has been an epic or can be an epic. It’s like everything was an opera, but when I first started working on this piece and read a libretto for the first time, it scared me. It was striking to think about this real story and it doesn’t pull any punches about the lived in world of a multiply felt family. The felt environment where the characters were so lived in and especially Brenda’s poetry. Her poetry allows life to be 700 years in the future and 500 years in the past. There is this resonance in “Sensorium Ex” that circulates and I knew I wanted to be part of it. I am primarily a soloist dancer in the contemporary world where we don’t show face and we a lot of times are very stern. Opera invites me to be emotive and expressive and I love what Davóne Tines said earlier about the church because pentecostalism and the ecstatic has always resonated with me too. I feel I get to do that here and I am really excited.

ADA: I want us to talk more about how “Sensorium Ex” is so different from any other opera’s process. This opera is built throughout its process from a story and the needs from everyone on the team. 

PP: “Sensorium Ex” has a character named Sophia, who you find out has actually been telling the story all along. Sophia, the robot narrator of the story, is an amalgamation of the memories and lived experiences of the opera’s main characters. Her musical voice will be developed through a co-creative process which seeks to build new, inclusive AI datasets around non-normative patterns of voice and speech. When I first read the libretto, I was like how am I going to do that? How can I make her voice sound like everyone else? 

I called my friend Luke DuBois, who heads Tandon School of Engineering at NYU, and I said I wanted to work in terms of finding AI. At the same time, we founded a disability advisor board which is international and we presented a question to provide support for cerebral palsy and this expression of voice: what kind of tools would you like to have that would actually add to your life? 

We then formed a class at NYU over the course of a year and a half to explore the AI aspects of “Sensorium Ex.”

ADA: Speaking of genre fluidity and the idea of the vehicle of opera being the human voice, and how you are finding ways in this collaborative effort with this advisory board to give voice is super impactful. What is the everyday process like when you get everyone together and/or do a workshop? What steps are being taken that are different from other operas?     

PP: If we really took a step back and asked ourselves what we really need in order to thrive, the contemporary framework wouldn’t fit any of us. For example, it didn’t fit me when I had a child and I needed to be at work everyday and compose. The question I’m looking at is what does it mean when we really look at systems and understand that we have blind singer, a singer that perhaps would like a ramp, what would that do if we asked ourselves what that means to provide for these real needs? These are some of the questions we ask about what thriving means when building an opera. When you have people with different lived experiences the question is: what do they need in order to be their best selves?

JH: The iterations have been a gift. For you, Paola, as our lead and composer, to trust that the iterations will get us toward our goal has been where the art has met us. The spaces, slowness, and intentions have all made for a ground for everything that we make. We are talking about what makes up the center of this new opera and we have to start from the outside to understand what’s at the center. We are looking at all of it. We trial and error a lot because this is part of learning how something works. With the access and especially with disability representation, you have to begin in order to have authority in it. 

ADA: You are building a genre around a language that has been known for centuries with a new language that doesn’t exist. This is what it means to push the walls and blend into each other. How do you see this work affecting the industry?

JH: Paola has already committed to making a coda within her score where no one is to produce it outside of our designated parameters. If you are going to be true to this piece, then you are going to be true to this multi-layer involvement. This level of commitment is already making the statement that one-size does not fit all. This is not about transferring one-to-one, this is about individuation and people who have the heart to care about it. This is about commitment. 

PP: We are chronicling everything into a codex. For example, when I was composing for two blind singers in our cast, I realized I couldn’t make last minute changes because the braille was already done and the entire orchestrated score would then not make sense. This has been a learning process for me through lived experience. We are putting everything into a codex so it is clear on how the process works. This work promotes a society where we actually hear and see each other, and that represents this multiplicity. 

I also want to read some of Brenda Shaughnessy’s text: “A mother’s love, science, tech, ethics, romance, corporate greed, a mystical escape and a robot named Sophia come together in this story about what it means to be human. ‘Sensorium Ex’ is an opera that explores the nature of voice beyond language. The use of artificial intelligence expands the possibility for voice and expression in this dystopian tale. Kitsune is a young boy with a disability who is non-speaking. The opera centers around the relationship with his mother, Mem, a scientist for a corporation that seeks to create the perfect human. They soon realize that it’s her son’s non-verbal data that they need in order to perfect perfection.” 


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