by Sandra Seaton
In February 2019 I received the news that I had been awarded a commission from the Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center. There were approximately 85 semi- finalists for the award. My commission as librettist (author of the story line and words) and the commission of the composer, Carlos Simon, constitutes a team for the creation of a new opera.
In September I went to DC for a week of rehearsals at the Washington National Opera's rehearsal hall with the composer, conductor, singers. This was the first time I had heard it sung. It was wonderful! On Saturday, September 21st there was a workshop performance at the REACH, a brand-new facility at the Kennedy Center.
On Friday, January 10th, I returned to DC for the premiere at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre.
Marlen Nahhas, left, and Alexandra Nowakowski perform in Liliya Ugay’s “Woman of Letters.” (Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center)
I am so lucky the premiere was in January 2020. By March everything in DC was closed.
Is this the first time you’ve undertaken a project like this?
I've been a librettist previously. I collaborated with composer William Bolcom on the monodrama From The Diary of Sally Hemings.However, this is my first actual opera. (I have written a musical and plays with music as a character, but that is not the same as opera.)
Since this was a commission, I started the process with three short proposals. The WNO liked one of my ideas the best. I then proceeded to write drafts in pieces and send them to the composer. I'm always excited about daydreaming about characters, living in their world. I believe in writing--creating characters and situations when I am doing things around the house, going for a walk, washing dishes, folding clothes--anytime I am doing something that I don't have to concentrate on, the writing takes over. The composer and I talked about my text. He set parts of it to music. I did a number of rewrites. We workshopped the piece in DC. Four months later it premiered. The words were always first.
Production photo by Scott Suchman.
What will happen now with the work?
Several opera companies have expressed interest in the work. One of them wants an expanded version. The problem: as soon as COVID-19 happened, everything's on hold. Performances of my work for 2020 have been cancelled. I don't know when they will be rescheduled.
What does this mean for your future, and future work?
When a piece receives strong reviews, that's a good sign. It gives arts organizations a reason to look you up. Since January, I have written a piece for a tenor that he will sing on remote with a pianist in another location. I have two new commissions for 2021. The success of the opera was a big factor in getting those. Of course, who knows what the future will hold for this live art form.
Production photo by Scott Suchman.
Here are the links to three opera reviews:
Monday, January 13th in the Washington Post:
Monday, January 13th in A Beast in A Jungle
and Saturday January 11th in the Washington Classical Review: https://bit.ly/2NyOmvQ
Sandra Seaton is a playwright and librettist. Her plays have been performed in cities throughout the country, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and her libretto for the song cycle From the Diary of Sally Hemings, set to music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom, has been performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.