Q & A: Composer, Writer Marisa Michelson on Exploring Female Perspective in ‘Naamah’s Ark’ & ‘Desire | Divinity Project’

By David Salazar

There’s a big conversation going on in the world of opera (and at large) about the need for women to come to the forefront of the creative process. Not only managing opera houses or in a leading role, but also in creating new and refreshing works that tell new and inciting stories.

More people like Marisa Michelson, who aside from being a composer, is a director, and founder of the Constellation-Chor, which seeks to immerse the voice, movement, and spirit. She is also a voice teacher and a multi-award winning writer.

She does it all.

Some of her recent projects engage directly with the female perspective, such as “Naamah’s Ark,” which tells the famed biblical tale from the perspective of Noah’s unnamed wife. That piece will be performed on June 17, 2018. Another notable work is the recently premiered “Desire | Divinity Project” in which Michelson confronts poetry from women devoted to God, noting that she found the overly sexual text unique in how strong women subjugate themselves to a male power.

OperaWire recently spoke with Michelson about those projects as well as her outlook on what opera is, could, and should be.

OperaWire: Where did “Naamah’s Ark” come from? What were the inspirations?

Marisa Michelson: The idea for the dramatic oratorio, “Naamah’s Ark,” came from a conversation with librettist Royce Vavrek: we were tossing out one idea after another, and when we considered telling the tale of Noah’s Ark from the perspective of the unnamed wife, the energy in the space between us was palpable.

OW: And the “Desire | Divinity Project?”

MM: The inspiration for the “Desire | Divinity Project” came from my obsession with the written texts of Marguerite Porete, Simone Weil, Hildegard von Bingen and Heloise d’Argenteuil – women who devoted their lives to God/the divine.  I was struck again and again by the overtly sexual language they utilized when writing about their encounters with God. These were strong women occupying positions of power, and yet they spoke about the joy of being overtaken, penetrated and erased by this male God. I was curious about the connection between powerful women and the use of such gendered, self-diminishing language… Also, as I’ve studied descriptions of divine encounters, I realized that the way women have historically conceived of the divine experience is distinct from the centuries of male writings on the same topic. The “Desire | Divinity Project” is my creative response to this inquiry.

OW: What was the greatest challenge to putting together these works?

MM: “Naamah’s Ark” is all about figuring out how to organize and literally fit five choirs on paper!  Each choir has its own SATB piece, but then also there are times when all choirs sing together.

The “Desire | Divinity Project” is challenging because in order to explore the work and bring my vision to life through composition and specific improvisations, I need huge amounts of rehearsal time with the 15 singers that make up my ensemble, Constellation Chor. Organizing schedules and finding financial support for such a process is a challenge.

OW: Tell me a bit about your composition style for the piece.

MM: In general, something that defines me as a composer is my body-oriented exploration of singing and how singing connects us to the dirt, soil, earth and root chakras, and also connects us to the air-filled spheres and crown chakras.  I’m also eclectic in my tastes and genres. Both “Naamah’s Ark” and my “Desire\Divinity Project” have been inspired by my deep love of early music and contemporary music.

OW: What opera composers do you draw inspiration from and why?

MM: Meredith Monk’s opera, “Atlas,” inspires me.  It explodes the concept “opera,” even while it exists comfortably in the cultural and structural world as an opera (playing opera houses, utilizing classically trained singers, written for large audiences). When I was younger, Menotti was a favorite; I loved his long winding melodies and interval jumps. Similarly, I felt a connection with Benjamin Britten’s expressive melodies and octave leaps.

OW: In today’s culture, what do you feel that opera should represent? How should opera fit in with today’s milieu?

MM: I like the idea of opera as a container for a musical, dramatic, visual and thematic statement. In today’s fast and social-media drenched world, I want opera to be a space people are invited to enter, a space where they will be transported via Sound, Music, Spirit, Fury, Passion, Soul, Story, Text, and Movement. I want an opera to have a clear and cohesive point of view. I want opera to be an offering in virtuosic musical form.

OW: You do quite a number of things, but let’s talk about your work as a composer. How did you know you wanted to be a composer?

MM: I remember that while practicing certain piano pieces as a child, my body would quicken and my soul would lift. Music gave me access to a rich inner world and all I wanted to do was spend more and more time creating inside of the space. I’m lucky that exterior opportunities and resources allowed me to continue to spend time where I felt most alive.

OW: What is one major challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career and what did you learn from overcoming it?

MM: After my musical “Tamar of the River” ran successfully off-Broadway in 2013, I disappeared into two writers retreats (MacDowell and then Ucross).  My intention was to use the time away from NYC to reflect on the art I’d created thus far, and on whether to move forward as a composer.  I wrestled with demons that told me I was not good enough, my work was not important enough, and that I had nothing to offer compared to others. I faced those feelings fully and came out of that experience recommitted to my own path, to being brave, and to following my purest impulses.

OW: What are some upcoming projects for you?

MM: First up, between April 5 through 29th is the world premiere of “One Thousand Nights and One Day,” an adaptation of Jason Grote’s acclaimed play, “1001,” and co-written with Jason Grote. It’s produced by Prospect Theatre at the new Art NY Theatre and directed by Erin Ortman.

Then on June 17th, a performance of my oratorio, “Naamah’s Ark,” written with Pulitzer Prize winner Royce Vavrek, and starring Tony Award winner Victoria Clark as part of NYC’s River to River Festival. And continuing: “The Desire | Divinity Project” with my ensemble Constellation Chor is ongoing.  I’m developing “Part III” and will be premiering all three parts together in the future.


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