Q & A: Ashi Day on ‘Waking The Witch’ & Contemporary Opera

By John Vandevert

Composer, librettist, and singer Ashi Day is a composer with a strong penchant for revitalizing opera’s antiquarian stories and gender hierarchy. As one of the eight women to receive funding as part of Opera America’s Opera Grants for Women Composers (OGWC), her present chamber opera project, “Waking the Witch” is scheduled to receive its first workshop performance December 9-10th at the Washington National Opera studios.

Inspired by the ferocious legacy of 15-17th century witch trials from Salam, Massachusetts to East Anglia, United Kingdom, a Witchfinder interrogates the audience (the supposed witch) and forces them to stay awake (“waking the witch”). However, the witch eventually starts to succumb to sleep deprivation and demons in the shape of animals make you question your hold of sanity and truth as you know it. Are you really a witch and is the Devil real?

In this ongoing series dedicated to the artists, composers, and companies dedicated to opera’s advancement, I ask the question “What is opera and what can it turn into?” No longer bound by antiquated edicts, artists can now use “opera” to make a statement: a profession of emotions and inner feelings that lie deep within their core. It is my goal, through interviews with all manner of people involved in the multifaceted world of “operatic theatre,” to examine projects and works with an aim of figuring out just what, exactly, it means to do opera in the 21st century: what is the statement that modern opera is trying to make?

In this interview, I sat down with Day to talk about her thoughts on her opera, creative process, and her philosophy on opera. 

The public trailer can be viewed on her YouTube channel.

OperaWire: What is music to you? 

Ashi Day: Music is something innate to human beings, and we can use it in any way we want that’s helpful. There’s nothing wrong with music for sheer entertainment value, however. Sometimes it can be the most valuable thing you can offer when the world is stressful, and people need a place to relax and feel, and cannot with other things. My relationship with music is that it [music] is something you do, not just something you listen to. It’s an active relationship.

It can be a tool to connect people, explore what makes us human, and how add dimensions to non-musical ideas. My compositional practice has been in the field of adding music to non-musical ideas. Everything I do has tended to be related to the text. As a singer, my experience with music is that it’s always connected to text, character, or something. Everything for me comes through this vocal lens, combining music with whatever you’re singing about.

OW: Where does your focus on politics, religion, and self-expression come from?

AD: It’s a mix of opportunity and interest. 

I’ve always loved theatre. But the religious aspect is that I grew up in the church and have sung as a church musician for a long time. After my education at Westminster, I stopped composing for a while because I ended up teaching for five years and lost my connection to [music] writing. Ten years ago, I started rebuilding my compositional practice from scratch. My only real outlet at the time was writing pieces for the church choir. 

Music, art, religion, and politics are all at the core of your values and purpose, leading a whole life and being part of society. Doing art and prayer and connecting with whom you’re supposed to be is the same.

OW: Your work primarily focuses on women and girls. Why?

AD: My background is in singing, but I got to a point where I asked myself, ‘How much do I love singing? What do I want to make of that? Do I want to make it a more professional thing?” When I began studying opera in lessons, I would not say I liked many of the roles for actual sopranos. I couldn’t connect with the stories and characters. I didn’t want to tell those stories. If I’m looking at the repertoire and not seeing a space for myself, it has to be true for other people too. Where are those people whom I can help out? My non-compositional career has been in music education. I work at The Washington National Opera in their Career Development programming for high school singers. We have a summer program, and most of the people who audition are sopranos. 

A recent study on women in opera pointed out that there are many more roles for basses and tenors than for sopranos and mezzos, including more minor roles. There is a flip-flop. Most of the parts are for basses and tenors, while the minor roles that can help get your foot in the door are for tenors and basses. It’s harder to move up. So many start as singers, too, and move to other roles. That means the chance to get into administration and directing is much more difficult if you have a high, light voice.

I looked at some of the songs given to high school singers, which made me feel unsure. There’s no “It shouldn’t be done,” but it’s the whole. Where are the genuinely silly things? Women with agency?

OW: How did “Waking the Witch” first come to grow as an idea? 

AD: Min Sang Kim and I were section leaders at the same church, and  I’ve been listening to him for years. He wanted me to write him a piece, and when I work with others, I usually ask, “What’s not in the repertoire that you’d love to do?” Based on his voice type, he wanted to play a bad guy. The idea of a witch hunter came to me, precisely the idea of using religion to hurt the most vulnerable people in society. The idea was to have it be a solo opera, and I was thinking of scenarios that could fit. The concept of a witch hunt landed because you could do an interrogation.

In terms of the audience, I wanted the observer to be thinking about how to respond. I call the opera “immersive” instead of “interactive” because the Witch Finder does not care what you say, and that’s the point of it all. The idea of being here, having things directed to you, and knowing that nothing you’ll say will make a difference, is scary. I wanted to balance it with absurdity so it’s a fun experience.

OW: Where did the idea come from to use the theme of 15-18th century witch hunts as operatic subject matter?

AD: This opera is not anti-religion. It is critical of the way religion is used in terms of this broader American system. It’s frustrating to see how religion is used as a pretext for discrimination. This is the opposite of my experience with religion. It took me a while to realize that many others were growing up in the Christian faith with very different experiences than me. The first time I was in a public space emphasizing anti-discrimination was at a regional church conference in the 90s. It’s fascinating and terrifying that something natural for me is being wildly distanced from what makes sense to me. The idea of the witch-hunts then stems from this. It feels like we’ve learned nothing. Witch hunts, Salam, McCarthyism, and Moral Panic of the 80s, now we have our versions.  

OW: What was the process of creating the opera’s plot?

Ashi showed me a poster board with multi-colored sticky notes full of notes, writings, and other handwritten research done surrounding primary documents read about the witch-hunts. She also listed some contemporary political events which influenced the opera, including (but not limited to): post-January 6th speeches, Anti-CRT legislation, controversial statements by judges during recent rape trials, and especially the 2021 Kavanaugh hearings, which she noted were big on her mind when she began the project.

AD: I was heavily influenced by the idea of being presented before a panel where the jury won’t believe you. I did a ton of research on the history of witch-hunt trials. So I wanted to plot to loosely follow a historically accurate interrogation of the more significant idea of witch-hunts but not specific to one. The plot follows most closely the trials from East Anglia in England in the 17th century because, at the time, torture was illegal, but sleep deprivation was not considered torture. That’s where the title comes from, keeping a supposed witch awake for days, and you made them walk around.

I formed the plot based on my research on what would happen during a typical interrogation—going from the accusation that would build up to the actual charge to the imposed ideological beliefs of the devil. It expands into ideas of a cabal and conspiracy theory. Sleep deprivation causes hallucinations and an inability to distinguish reality and time.   

OW: Being a librettist and singer, how did you synthesize meaning and music?

AD: When I first began working on the opera, everything I wanted to write was in this minor key, recitative, arioso-like style, which, if you were to improvise, would come. The piece is too long, however, for that to keep happening. So I had to figure out how to structure the texts in a way that would give musical variation. The prologue is modeled after a prayer inspired by chant; the next movement is then arioso, a half-sung, half-spoken type of thing. The next movement is in Lydian; it’s not quite as spooky, but it gets spooky later.

For the following movements [Accusations], I had to consider the emotional difference between them. In all of them, the witch hunter is intimidating and self-righteous. How do I break this down further? The first one about the mysterious healing is weird but not necessarily bad. The following person suffers a bad thing, but the Witch Finder cannot relate. They would use it the way politicians use tragedy. I got inspired by Baroque dances with the idea of a formal dance, the way politicians perform.

Then something terrible happens to a Magistrate, and in my mind, the Witch Finder would sympathize with them more than a farmer family. This is closer to him and when he would get frightened. I looked at a book of Puritan hymns online and found some heavy ones, and those melodies were given a folk-songy feel to them that grew increasingly rhythmic. They were inspired by the folk-song lament and going into militaristic, religious righteousness.

OW: The instruments embody animal familiars. What was the thought process behind this effect?

As a singer, I was always jealous of instrumentalists who could walk out and tune and do all these things, but we had to walk out and be poised, ready to go. Part of me thought, “No, you act stuff out too.” I did a piece for a chamber ensemble called “Whistling Hens.” They are a clarinet and soprano duo, and I’ve written two pieces for them; both were scenes. One of them was a 15-minute opera called “The Green Child.” I’m interested in how the clarinetist acted on her part. Because I come from a singing background, I felt I could expand into instrumental writing by giving character to the instruments.

Part of the reason I went to WCC was that I wanted to write for voice and needed more experience. This opera is possible because I partnered with a group called ‘Balance Campaign,’ a Pierrot ensemble here in D.C. I knew I could write for them, and they would give me feedback and help me. In our workshop, we spent an afternoon having them show me all the weird sounds they could make with their instruments and how to notate them. I needed that support from instrumentalists.

By writing for the instruments, how I write for the voice, and with character, I helped myself immensely. In the plot, the animal familiars are a massive part of the story of the witch-hunt. I’m not someone who has a literal view of the Devil, but what I thought if this were true, such things as animal familiars [demons in animal form] sent by the Devil and they could see what was happening during these trials, I couldn’t think of anything that would make the Devil happier than being so horrible to a person and say you’re doing on behalf of the Devil’s biggest enemy, i.e., God. The animal familiars show up, and the witch-hunts are a party to them. Their job is to egg the Witchfinder on; only the audience notices them. As the opera continues, their instrumental parts get more “popular” with influences of Appalachian and jazz.

I wanted some levity in the piece, even if it’s uncomfortable levity. It couldn’t all just be seriousness.

OW: You note that “Opera is just music and stores.” As a composer, how does this help the creative process?

There are many conventions with opera, aria, and recit. That leaves the question, “How do you make recit [ative] interesting?” You take away the idea that you need to have an aria and recit; you don’t have to address that question. Another convention is that you have a composer and librettist. What if you have the idea that you have enough people on your team to make good music and words? I can do vocal music and words, and I am bringing people in who can help with the instrumental writing.

We can create more exciting works if we let go of the idea that opera creators are composers AND librettists, and instead, one way to create an opera is to have a composer and a librettist. There are other ways, like finding others with the skill set to do both. It comes down to the, I want to make things, and opera is the closest art form to the things I want to complete regarding my interest and the stories I want to do. Because my career involves opera education, I’m always contemplating how we work with people entering the field. How are we preparing people?


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