p r i s m workshop

ASU Music Theatre and Opera’s new works initiative creates path to a Pulitzer Prize for composer

By

Lynne MacDonald

The 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music went to the composer of “p r i s m” — an opera that had its first developmental workshop at the Arizona State University School of Music and was commissioned and developed by a School of Music alumna.

The opera was one of the first projects workshopped at ASU as part of the Music Theatre and Opera program’s new works initiative, which is forging a new 21st-century model toward the creation of new works and establishing ASU as a major developer of new and innovative music theatre and opera.

“The initiative exposes students to the creative process of new work development and provides them with the pedagogical experience of working directly with composers and librettists and collaborating with internationally recognized professional artists and organizations,” said Brian DeMaris, artistic director of the Music Theatre and Opera program.

During the “p r i s m” workshop, composer Ellen Reid, librettist Roxie Perkins and ASU alumna Beth Morrison, whose company commissioned and produced the opera, were in residence at the school and worked with music theater and opera students.

“The new work readings are an important way for our students to experience hands-on how operas and musicals come into being through the development process,” said Heather Landes, director of the ASU School of Music. “By working with cutting-edge role models, our students are gaining valuable experience and developing a set of skills not found in many collegiate programs today.”

Since 2016, the new works initiative has worked with students, alumni and outside partners to develop new works at ASU, with most continuing on to additional professional workshops and world premieres. After the “p r i s m” workshop at ASU in 2017, the opera went on to receive its world premiere at the Los Angeles Opera in 2018, earning rave reviews and an East Coast premiere at the 2019 New York City Prototype Festival. The Pulitzer jury praised the opera as a “bold new operatic work that uses sophisticated vocal writing and striking instrumental timbres to confront difficult subject matter: the effects of sexual and emotional abuse.”

“The initiative is an opportunity for our music theater and opera students to contribute to growth in the field and highlights the power of the musical stage to communicate about complex social issues and transform society,” Landes said.

DeMaris said the new works initiative incorporates the values of ASU, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the School of Music by assuring students have the opportunity to create something new; emphasizing opera and musical theater as a critical resource for transforming society; utilizing innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurship outreach and connections; involving interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborative art forms in all aspects of design and the arts; projecting all voices through underrepresented composers and librettists; and promoting excellence in performance abilities.

The 2018–19 selected works were prime examples of use-inspired research, DeMaris said, and fused together the intellectual disciplines of art history, media, technology, diverse musical styles, video journalism and psychology.

“Behold The Man” is based on the real life story of artists Elías García Martínez and Cecelia Giménez and the botched restoration of the “Ecce homo” fresco in Borja, Spain; “Marie Begins,” an interactive jazz opera, utilizes clicker technology to enable the audience to choose the plot and outcome of the performance; and “The Anxiety Project,” in collaboration with the Phoenix Theatre Company, is based on a graduate psychology research project and real-life case studies. “Marie Begins” went on to additional performances at Tri-Cities Opera and “Behold the Man” recently won the Fort Worth Opera "Frontiers" competition and is featured in the Fort Worth Opera "Frontiers" Festival in May 2019.

Other past projects include “Babe: An Olympian Musical” (2016–17), which was the first work performed at the ASU Kerr Cultural Center as part of the new works reading series that stemmed from the new works initiative. “Babe,” which was composed by alumna Jill Higgins, went on to a full performance at the National Women’s Music Festival. For that performance, two music students were invited to reprise their roles from the ASU workshop. “The Halloween Tree” (2017–18), co-produced with American Lyric Theatre, is expected to receive additional workshops leading toward future professional productions.

More locally, “Til Death: A Musical,” co-produced with ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre, was featured at this year's Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre, exhibiting the work of recent ASU alums Alexander Tom (BM composition ’16, music composer) and Amanda Prahl (MFA theatre ’18, book and lyrics).

Additional collaborations between ASU and Beth Morrison Projects are currently being planned for future seasons.

The Music Theatre and Opera program boasts a 100% success rate of collaborating on pieces that have gone on to professional workshops and performances after ASU. As a result, the program’s directors have been invited to present on how universities can partner with producing organizations and composers/librettists in the development of new work. In January 2018, DeMaris was an invited presenter at the Opera America New Works Forum in New York with panelists Beth Morrison, Lawrence Edelson (producer, “The Halloween Tree”), composer Mark Adamo and program leaders from two other universities also engaged in new work development. He recently moderated a similar panel at the National Opera Association January 2019 conference along with three other universities on "Models of New Work Development in the University Setting," featuring ASU’s work with Morrison on "p r i s m."

“Development of works such as this is integral to our role as an opera and music theater program within a leading research institution,” DeMaris said. “ASU is among the very few research universities in the country who have been able to do this. Being invited to serve on national panels of industry professionals from around the world is a testament to our success. Our engagement with new work is one of the things that sets us apart from other collegiate music theatre and opera programs nationally and prepares our students for a future in an industry that we will never know. It is a growing trend that we have helped set, and my goal is for us to remain on the forefront.”