CU New Opera Workshop will preview new opera written for Houston Grand Opera
By Peter Alexander June 15 at 11:30 p.m.
Six years ago composer Jake Heggie was in the Smithsonian Institution when a docent told him what his next opera should be.
The composer of the successful operas Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life, Heggie usually has no trouble finding his own subjects. “My first response was ‘Yay! I’ve never heard that before!’” he says. But six years later, Intelligence, his opera based on that very idea, is being workshopped at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in preparation for its premiere in a future season of the Houston Grand Opera.
As Heggie tells the story, “We were [at the Smithsonian] doing some events, and this docent pulls me aside. He said ‘Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser?’ I said no, and he goes ‘You need to look them up, and that should be your next opera.’ And he walked away.”
Heggie and Scheer started doing research into the two women, and the more they learned the more interested they became. Heggie recalls, “I started Googling and I was like ‘Gee!’ And I remember Gene calling me and saying, ‘Jake, it’s an incredible story!’”
The two women were spies for the Union during the Civil War. Van Lew was a white abolitionist living in Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. Bowser—who went by several names including Mary Jane Richards—was a former slave of the Van Lew family who had been freed, educated in the North, and then travelled to Liberia in Africa as a missionary. She returned to Virginia, even though her freedom there was illegal, and joined a spy ring operated by Van Lew.
As women, they were able to operate without raising suspicion—no one expected women to be dangerous. That was doubly true for Richards/Bowser, who was virtually invisible in the Southern society of the time so long as she acted like an uneducated slave. On one occasion she went into the Confederate White House on the pretext of collecting laundry and managed to read the papers in Jefferson Davis’s study. What she read there was passed on to Union generals.
“Her story, aside from the aspect of being a spy, is just amazing,” Scheer says. “We are weaving various aspects of her life and Van Lew’s life, focused on the Civil War. There are pivotal points that are known historical facts that we could thread together. And these facts became the springboard for us to create the story.”
Early on Heggie realized that one thing was missing for the opera. “We needed to have not only a woman’s perspective, but we needed and African-American woman’s perspective, because we are two white guys,” he explains.
“I thought, what if this had an element of movement and dance? I started thinking about the dance world and I called friends and I said, ‘Do you know of a choreographer/director or a company that would be right for an opera that is a hybrid of these things?’”
They all gave Heggie the same name: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of the dance troupe Urban Bush Women. He wrote her an email to ask if she would be interested. She was in the middle of other projects so could not respond immediately, but once she talked to Heggie she was drawn in.
“I became so intrigued by not only the story, but their point of view and what they wanted to do,” Zollar says. “It felt right for me, and it also felt like the right time for me to engage in a project like that.”
Heggie is thrilled at the contributions Zollar makes to the project. When they began the workshop, he says, “it became even clearer, first of all, this is exactly right, and everyone was right to tell us exactly the right person. We hit it off and liked each other right away. She is helping conceive the whole thing.”
“We all have different perspectives from our lived experiences, individually, and then our history collectively,” Zollar says. “That’s what I bring with me. What I was really intrigued by was Mary Jane as this woman who had been freed, which means that there is a certain way of carriage in her body, and now is in a house where she is enslaved, and so she has to carry that. I’m intrigued by her ability to code switch.”
The workshop has involved the dancers from Urban Bush Women, who have gotten together for the first time since the pandemic. This return to working in person has made CU NOW a joyful as well as intense time for the participants.
Scenes from Intelligence will be performed in run-throughs Friday, June 18, and Sunday, June 20. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer will be present and will participate in talkback sessions after the performances. In addition to the CU students who are singing most of the parts, three guest artists fill roles that did not fit any of the current students: Jasmine Habersham and Raehann Bryce-Davis are singers affiliated with Houston Grand Opera, and Aaron Jenkins is a CU alumnus.
CU NOW was started in 2010 by Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman as an educational experience for the students. “It has been said that this is the golden age of American opera,” she says. “I feel if we don’t educate our students about creating new opera, it’s akin to malpractice.
“CU NOW was started, and I keep it going, for the education of our students.”
Often, as the composer hears their piece being performed, they decide to change parts of the score, or the singers may suggest ideas that improve a given vocal line or part. The composer might make the change on the spot, and ask the student to learn the new music for the next day’s rehearsal.
“Our students never had that experience before CU NOW,” Holman says. “Never before had they been given a brand new piece of music and told, ‘learn this by tomorrow.’ They can’t listen to a recording of how to do it, so it has really built their skills.”
Today most major opera companies are doing new works. CU NOW has given students the experience to successfully learn new works, and several graduates of the program have sung premieres or workshops at Minnesota Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and other companies.
“That’s why we started this,” Holman says.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the readings of excepts from Intelligence are open to the general public. They are not. Due to campus-wide COVID restrictions, attendance is by invitation only.