American Song: Time Program Notes
By: Angelica DiIorio
Have you ever looked through old photos and had all the memories rush back to you? For just a second, you have been transported through time back to that exact moment. Time passes for everyone, but some moments will be with you forever. The theme of this season’s American Song is “time,” so you can expect an emotional journey remembering the past and looking forward to the future.
American Song is a unique program that brings together opera, musical theatre, and art songs by exclusively American composers. It is designed by our Director of Education & Community Engagement and Director of the Artist in Residence Program, Cherity Koepke. Let’s check in with her with a Q&A on the creation of American Song and get a preview of what to expect at the performance in 2023.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE “TIME” AS THIS SEASON’S THEME?
It started about a year ago when Greg Carpenter, The Ellie Caulkins General & Artistic Director, and I started to think about the 40th Anniversary Season. He thought it would be interesting to focus on the decades where Opera Colorado has been around. I liked the idea, but the more I played with it and tried to create something that would take the audience on a journey, the more it wasn’t quite working. Instead, I started to think less about the decades themselves and more about the concept of time.
I realized I could tell a story about time and how our lives are so impacted by it. Time is a form of memory and it’s something we cannot make more of. I think American Song will take the audience on an amazing journey looking at time as part of the human story.
CAN THE AUDIENCE STILL EXPECT TO SEE REFERENCES TO OPERA COLORADO’S HISTORY?
Absolutely! It’s incredibly special to have a company in the U.S. celebrating forty years. While the focus of American Song would not be just on Opera Colorado’s history, I realized it could be a set on its own. You can expect to hear some pieces of American opera that have been performed at Opera Colorado. The pieces include operas we have premiered, and we have even recorded some of them: As One, Nixon in China, and The Scarlet Letter. There might be a few more pieces at American Song from our history, but you’ll have to wait and see which ones.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT WHAT IS INVOLVED IN THE RESEARCH FOR AMERICAN SONG.
The day after we finish the last American Song program, I start on the next one. I always listen to new pieces wherever I can: in the car, as background music, and YouTube rabbit holes. I have a huge running list of interesting pieces. Next, I get to know the voices of the Artists in Residence to understand which pieces will show them off at their best.
This year’s American Song has been a unique research experience because I now have a running list of over 300 pieces. I don’t have to start my repertoire from scratch every time. I look at that list and see if I can make anything work with the chosen theme. This process is helping me create a more robust performance because I’m not scrambling for new pieces. I might only be looking for ten pieces to augment what I’ve already found.
THIS IS THE NINTH YEAR AMERICAN SONG HAS BEEN PERFORMED. HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH COMPOSERS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
When we started this program, I really didn’t know more than one or two composers. Now, after nine years, I have relationships with these composers, and they send me their work for American Song. Just today, one of the composers sent me a song that he has never performed before. I was familiar with some American composers from performing their work, but the relationship is different when you are directing instead of singing.
It took a few years to build trust with composers, but once you’re connected with some, you’re in! They start telling you about other people’s work and the relationships grow. For example, I was only able to connect with award-winning composer Drew Gasparini through a connection with Jeff Blumenkrantz.
WHAT PIECE IS YOUR FAVORITE IN THIS SEASON’S PROGRAM?
I spend so much time with this music before the performance even happens, I almost have a relationship with it. I have an attachment to every single piece. Some pieces jump out to me because I like how the music and the text relate to each other.
One piece that comes to mind is “If I Have to Live Alone” by Stephen Schwartz from The Baker’s Wife. It is one of my favorite musicals and most people haven’t heard of it. I love the harmonic writing in this piece. Sometimes modern compositions can miss harmonic integrity, and this piece has it in spades!
Another piece is “That Moment On” by Jake Heggie from a song cycle called Pieces of 9/11. I had heard this piece several years ago, but it struck me recently how much this work is tied to a specific date and time. I remember where I was on that date and the emotion in this music really speaks to me.
WHAT MAKES AMERICAN SONG SO UNIQUE?
American Song is special because the music is rarely performed and the performances are unlike any other programming we do. American Song can be the only time a person will ever hear certain songs. Even the pieces by bigger composers are ones you just don’t hear enough. Also, we don’t have sets or backgrounds. What you experience is the talent of the artists in the purest form because the focus is solely on the singing and dramatic performances.
It’s such a gift for the Artists in Residence to be put front and center at American Song. They get to showcase their wide range of talents, making them more versatile artists. In fact, a past Artist in Residence, Eric J. McConnell, is now performing a role in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, where he will be singing something he was first exposed to through American Song.
It’s also important to recognize the American composers themselves. With American Song, I want to not only introduce the audience to current names, but I also want to honor the people who paved the way for these genres. American music would not be what it was without these people. To tell the full story, I can’t focus on just the people who have written in the last twenty years.
American Song truly is a special program and focusing on time is the perfect way to celebrate four decades of songs and stories with Opera Colorado. This performance promises to take you on an emotional journey, but will end with positive energy with the final set, “A Time To Laugh.”