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Lori Laitman

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Lyric Opera of Kansas City commissions Maya and The Magic Ring

More than 400 new operas have been produced on the world’smainstages during the 21st century so far. That’s great, right? Thebad news is that a surprisingly large share of those will never berevived, not even once. (For context, since opera’s beginningsaround 1600, tens of thousands of operas have reached the stage,and only about 50 to 60 of those appear today with any regularity.)Thus the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s approach to new-workscommissioning seems both shrewd and refreshing: especially at atime when American opera companies have experienced a 20 to30 percent drop in season subscriptions since COVID-19,according to Opera America.

Rather than spend millions adding to opera’s list of one-productionwonders, the Lyric has determined to create new works in a realmwhere the repertoire is astonishingly meager: operas for familiesand young people. “We are really concerned about who ouraudiences will be in the year 2050,” said Neal Long, the Lyric’sdirector of learning since early 2022. “So it is our hope that bytargeting families and intergenerational audiences together, wecan foster a long-term love of the art form and a desire to seek outstories through art.

There are a number of operasintended for young people, thoughalarmingly few good ones. Evenopera fans can only name a dozen orso works (Hansel and Gretel, Amahland the Night Visitors, BenjaminBritten’s Noye’s Fludde, RachelPortman’s The Little Prince, forinstance) that are suitable for childrenand that grown-ups can bear to sitthrough.

“You either get The Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood,” said Lyric General Director Deborah Sandler, a driving force behind the family-opera commission project. “Not that there’s anything wrong with thosestories, they certainly had their place in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But we’redealing with different issues here: We’re trying to go deeper.”

In August, the Lyric announced that it has commissioned two newoperas for this series, both to be created by leading operatic andliterary figures. In April 2024, the company will produce TheHaberdasher Prince, a new work by the twin-sister team ofcomposer Rosabella Gregory and librettist Dina Gregory. And inthe spring of 2025, the Lyric brings Maya and the Magic Ring, withmusic by Lori Laitman (The Scarlet Letter, The Three Feathers) anda libretto by poet Dana Gioia, who served as chairman of theNational Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. These worksfollow last year’s Sketchbook for Ollie, a story by composer-librettist Rachel J. Peters about dealing with grief.

The commissioning program is designed to create exceptionalworks of art that go beyond mere entertainment: works that teach“empathy, social-emotional learning, and artistic literacy for allages,” as the Lyric’s announcement states.

Neal elaborated: “Opera is musical storytelling ... it can tellbasically any story. But it is our belief that opera has a heightenedcapacity to teach empathy, and in 2023, in a world post-COVIDwhere we have perhaps lost some empathic skills and lost theability to have conversations, we’re really interested in puttingworks out that foster these conversations: works that use the stage for discussion, that address topics that are universal, but that areconstructed in a way where we can connect the dots between theart onstage and the individuals in the audience.”

What sort of team does a company look for when creating a“family opera”? For the most part, it’s the same team one wouldseek for any commission. “We’re interested in working withcomposers who use melodies and tunes,” Neal said. “Whenengaging children, and with folks in general, who may not be usedto opera or with the way time moves in opera, at the end of theday it’s really important to have something one can hum. ... Inother words, a new opera needs to look and sound like an opera,incorporating the formal elements characteristic to the art form. Ifeel a responsibility to have an aria, to have recitative, to have aduet, to have an ensemble. The characteristics of opera areimportant.”

Composers and librettistschosen for the Lyric’s series areveterans in these areas.Rosabella is an award-winningcomposer for British theater,television, and opera, and hersister, Dina, is an author, lyricist,and librettist. Fanfare calledLori Laitman, composer for theLyric’s 2025 opera, “one of themost talented and intriguing ofliving composers.” Dana Gioia,recipient of the PresidentialCitizens Medal, is a poet, critic,and librettist whom BusinessWeek magazine called “TheMan Who Saved the N.E.A.”

Central to the program are “four values that we look toward when engaging composer andlibrettists,” Neal said. First of those is “curricular alignment: thatthe creators tie the theme of their story into the learning that’salready happening in the classroom.” Second is social-emotionallearning, and third is musical accessibility.

Fourth, the operas should evoke interactivity. “We really wish forour audiences ... to be actively engaged in the storytelling,” Nealadded. “So there will be opportunities, whether it’s for call-and-response or throwing ideas back and forth, to engage. Interactivityis key.” The Lyric will foster this effort by partnering withcommunity centers, houses of worship, and schools, towardpresenting operas at alternate venues throughout the region.

After a brief initial run at the Lyric’s Production Arts Center, eachportable production (normally using four to six singers from theLyric’s Resident Artists Program and a small chamber ensemble)can “go on the road” with ease. Many Kansas Citians might thusbe experiencing opera for the first time ever: and in a safe, familiarplace.

After last year’s presentation of Sketchbook for Ollie, young peopleand parents were encouraged to share stories of grief. Thepresenters were astonished at the responses. “It was reallypowerful,” Neal said. “These children spoke so articulately abouttheir personal experiences with loss. ... For some of them it was anobject ... or even a vacation. But then some of them told reallypoignant stories of deaths that they had experienced.”

The important thing was that opera was meeting people “wherethey lived,” literally and figuratively, and from that spark, deeperinterest can grow. “Everybody’s talking about being a value to theircommunity, engaging with their community,” Deborah said. “Andif you take a long view, you have to start early.”

The current initiative has “enabled us to talk to a lot of people thatwe don’t normally talk to, and create different partnerships in thecommunity,” she added. “It’s not going to change what’s going onin the arts overnight. ... But it can change things eventually. If all ofus can continue to do this, I think there’s hope that, in 2050, the arts in Kansas City will truly be integral to who we are as acommunity.”

For tickets and information, call 816-471-7344 or go tokcopera.org. To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send anemail to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook(paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Featured in the October 14, 2023 issue of The Independent.By Paul Horsley


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