Cincinnati Opera’s 'Fierce' and 'Castor and Patience' Give Voice to Underrepresented Stories

Two world premieres originally scheduled for Cincinnati Opera’s 2020 centennial season will make their delayed debuts in July.

click to enlarge U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and composer Gregory Spears, the creators of Castor and Patience - Photo: Michael Priest Photography
Photo: Michael Priest Photography
U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and composer Gregory Spears, the creators of Castor and Patience

Two world premieres originally scheduled for Cincinnati Opera’s 2020 centennial season will make their delayed debuts in July.

On July 6, 9 and 10, Fierce will feature a score by Cincinnati native and renowned pianist William Menefield and libretto by novelist Sheila Williams. Later, Castor and Patience will mark the debut of award-winning 2017-2019 U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith as librettist, or the writer of text sung in an opera, as well as the return of composer Gregory Spears, who was behind the acclaimed Fellow Travelers. Castor and Patience will take place July 21, 23, 24, 28 and 30.

Both works offer characters whose voices have been ignored: young women, especially women of color, and Black families whose crises are rooted in the patterns of racist American policies and cultures. Moreover, both operas are part of Cincinnati Opera’s long-term commitment to commissioning operas that highlight underrepresented communities and their stories. 

Fierce presents stories of teenaged girls channeling their artistry through a vortex of challenges, both personal and social. 

Williams spent more than a year in conversations with young women convened by the Music Resource Center in Walnut Hills and WordPlay Cincy, a Northside nonprofit that fosters children’s and teens’ creativity through writing and arts integration. 

“Nothing was off limits,” Williams tells CityBeat of the discussions that ensued. “I was the fly on the wall.”

Williams, whose novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof was adapted by Netflix for the 2019 film Juanita, says that she used her screenwriting experience in crafting her first libretto. She adds that after hours of deep conversations, a huge challenge was creating a text that could be sung. 

Williams drew on her love of world mythology to name her four protagonists. All emerging artists, the teens struggle with parents, peers and a brutal cyber world. 

Vesta “has one foot in childhood and the other poised to step into womanhood,” Williams says. Nyomi is an introvert in an extrovert’s shell. Rumer “is a 2022 version of Stevie Nicks, desperately trying to navigate loss and survival,” Williams says, and Morgan juggles her dreams with her parents’ expectations.

Although pianist Menefield didn’t participate in the conversations that Williams had with local teenagers, attending the Music Resource Center showcase featuring the young artists provided a clearer sense of the motivations of the characters they created.  "There were a lot of text messages and emails as the score took shape," Menefield recalls.

Armed with a creative toolbox that included stage performances at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, solo gigs at Cincinnati Opera’s popular series “Opera Goes to Church” and landmark East Walnut Hills jazz venue Greenwich Tavern, and compositions for instrumental and vocal ensembles (including for PRISM, commissioned by the Young Professionals Choral Collective, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2019), Menefield had confidence to transform Williams’ libretto into song, beginning with signature arias for the four leads. 

“Establishing a musical identity for each character was essential,” Menefield explains. “It made it easier to shape the other characters from a musical perspective.” 

Fierce’s other characters include friends, teachers and a chorus of online trolls. 

Menefield and Williams forged a strong collaboration for Fierce, tweaking verbal and melodic lines and working with stage director D. Lynn Meyers, who is making her Cincinnati Opera debut. Williams praised her collaborator's score. "Williams’ music is incredible, a perfect setting for the work."

Menefield tells CityBeat that he is especially excited to see his first opera on the same stage where he performed nearly 30 years ago.

For Castor and Patience, composer Spears was eager to work on a new opera with his longtime friend Smith. The two met in 2008 while Smith was teaching at Princeton and Spears was a doctoral student.

“After the success of Fellow Travelers, I was more confident about approaching Cincinnati Opera to take a risk on us for a new work,” Spears explains. “They had faith in us and gave us the time we needed to develop a story.” 

Spears and Smith shared a desire to explore little-known aspects of American history, focusing on the effects of racism and the exclusion of Black communities. Spears and Smith took several trips to South Carolina and coastal Georgia to interview people whose lives were affected by policies restricting Black property ownership. As Spears and Smith traveled in South Carolina and coastal Georgia, accompanied by local historians, ethnomusicologists, and poet/photographer Rachel Elizabeth Griffiths whose work appears in the production, a story emerged.

The accounts of communities victimized by policies directed against Black land ownership were a shock, especially for Smith, who grew up in Northern California.

“I didn’t know much about this,” Smith says. “But we just listened. We looked and learned. And soon the characters began to bubble up.”

Smith’s luminous poetry (Life on Mars, Duende) and memoir (Ordinary Light) frequently invoke home and memory, themes that are powerfully present in her libretto for Castor and Patience.

She describes the writing process as an act of faith. Spears calls it brilliant and beautiful.

“I was intimidated but surprisingly enough I found myself hearing voices and hearing wishes and needs and then the geometry of the story rose up,” Smith says.

In the opera, cousins Castor and Patience reconnect at a family reunion. It’s 2008, and Castor is a victim of the recession, cratered by job loss and a balloon mortgage. He’s eager to sell property that’s been in the family since the Reconstruction era in the mid-1800s, but Patience’s commitment to the land and its legacy is equally strong.

Reviews in The New York Times and Opera News cited Spears' ability to let words sing. Smith found that reassuring.

“The way he’s able to transmit natural speech musically makes me feel safe,” she says. 

Spears jotted down musical fragments that became puzzle pieces he fit into Smith’s libretto, which he says loves. Their close collaboration and mutual trust allowed Spears to create music that supports the text and allows the singers to inhabit their roles.

Smith notes that Castor and Patience’s conclusion is open-ended and adds that Patience addresses the audience to what it means to be a witness to racism. Smith and Spears agree that the aria calls for confronting and dealing with history.

“We deliberately left the property’s location unnamed. The characters’ history is our history and we’re implicated in these systems that have great force on people’s lives,” Smith says.

Both creative teams are eager to take on another opera, they say. Smith and Spears already are working on a new commission. Menefield, who teaches jazz piano at the University of Iowa, looks forward to a second production, as does Williams, who is tackling her next novel.

All four express deep gratitude to Cincinnati Opera for taking risks with their new pieces and providing opportunities to work with emerging performers.

“Composers always worked with singers on new operas,” Spears says. “Our singers made such huge contribution, taking it to a new level. To be part of this tradition is such a gift.”

Cincinnati Opera's Fierce will run July 6, 9 and 10, while Castor and Patience will be performed July 21, 23, 24, 28 and 30. Ticket and more info: cincinnatiopera.org.

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