Kamala Sankaram’s Joan of the City is inspired by homelessness and Joan of Arc
By Peter Alexander June 17 at 5:23 p.m.
Composer Kamala Sankaram says that many of the pieces she writes start with her own imagination and not the way many operas get written— with a commission for a specific performing organization.
“They start with a crazy idea that I have” Sankaram says. “Then I talk to people and see who also is crazy.” She then works with the “also crazy” people to bring her idea to life.
For her latest project, an opera titled Joan of the City that combines themes of homelessness with the Joan of Arc story, those conversations led her to Leigh Holman, director of the Eklund Opera Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the New Opera Workshop (CU NOW).
Sankaram has been in Boulder for the past two weeks, composing music and working with students in the opera program to start turning her “crazy idea” into a site-specific opera that will be premiered next year by Opera Omaha. Completed portions of Joan of the City will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday (June 19) in the Music Theatre of Imig Music Building.
The performance is free and open to the public, and will take place entirely in the Music Theatre space.
The basic idea of the opera is that not one but five Joans will be fighting, not the English invaders in France, but gentrification and other forces creating homelessness in American cities. Starting in five different places within Omaha, the Joans eventually meet up, as audiences move with them through the city.
Sankaram grew up in Southern California, where the car is king, but after she moved to New York she started walking everywhere. “Whenever I go to a new city I’m walking, and I see the homeless community,” she says. “I think it’s important to have people see what does that feel like, to be walking the city, instead of driving by in a car.
“I started thinking about [homelessness] several years ago, and it has become increasingly problematic and prevalent . . . [in] all places across the United States. So the idea was how do you get people to look and see things that they normally look past.”
Another idea was the use of technology, which features in a lot of Sankaram’s work. It is technology that will allow the onsite performances in Omaha to take place in different places across the city, and also will allow audience members to participate in the performance by playing audio from their cell phones.
The final piece of Sankaram’s “crazy idea” was working with homeless agencies—Mary’s Place in Seattle and Micah House in Omaha—to connect the finished work to the homeless community. With her co-creator of Joan of the City, New York-based hybrid-theater director Kristin Marting, Sankaram and the homeless shelters presented writing workshops for the shelter clients.
The work that came from those workshops became the basis of the text for Joan of the City. “The libretto is all these poems that the shelter clients wrote, and then they’re sort of structured on this overall dramatic arc from the Joan of Arc story,” Sankaram explains. “It starts off as arias and then as the Joans meet each other, it turns into duets and trios and finally a quintet.”
Sankaram’s work is an example of the kind of creative and adventurous projects that CU NOW aims to support. Many new works go through a workshop process, but CU NOW is unique in that it offers a longer than average period for composers to work with performers while refining their work.
The program is largely Holman’s brainchild. She started CU NOW in 2010, and it has offered several composers the opportunity to refine works that were in development, including It’s a Wonderful Life by Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie, which was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2016 and performed by the CU Eklund Opera in 2019.
The composers and works are chosen for CU NOW largely through Holman’s contacts in the professional world. “So far nobody has ever submitted anything (for consideration),” she says. “It’s only been knowing somebody or meeting somebody through relationships, or going to see their operas. I just invite them, and they do it because they want to develop their piece and we can provide the students and the facilities and the musicians.”
In addition to the work that is done by an established composer preparing a new piece, there is simultaneously an educational component for young composers. Under the rubric Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CFI), a composer and librettist have been brought in to work with students to develop both their musical skills and their understanding of stagecraft.
This year, the students have been working with composer Tom Cipullo, whose comic opera Hobson’s Choice was featured at CU NOW in 2019, and librettist Gene Scheer, whose was in Boulder for CU NOW last year (Intelligence, with composer Jake Heggie) as well as 2016 (It’s a Wonderful Life).
“It’s a marvelously thrilling thing to be a part of,” Cipullo says of CFI. The composers in this year’s program “are extraordinary young musicians,” he says. “CFI gives them a push into writing operas. They have an interest, they’re all talented. How much they’ll pursue it, what works they’ll create, who can say, [but] they jumped in and they’re doing some really good things.”
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CU Now Opera Workshop
Leigh Holman, director
Kamala Sankaram: Joan of the City (portions)
3 p.m. Sunday, June 19
Imig Music Building, Music Theatre (N1B95)