New Operas By Missy Mazzoli and Jennifer Higdon Set For Festival O24 and Opera Philadelphia's 50th Anniversary Season

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By: Feb. 28, 2023
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New Operas By Missy Mazzoli and Jennifer Higdon Set For Festival O24 and Opera Philadelphia's 50th Anniversary Season

Opera Philadelphia will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the 2024-2025 Season, which will begin with Festival O24. The annual season-opening celebration will take on added significance in this anniversary year, anchored by two new company commissions composed by women with strong ties to the company and the city of Philadelphia.

Making its U.S. Premiere at the Academy of Music is The Listeners, the latest opera from the Philadelphia-born, Grammy-nominated composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, whose 2016 world premiere at Opera Philadelphia, Breaking the Waves, was a phenomenon that won the inaugural Best New Opera Award from the Music Critics Association of North America. Making its World Premiere is Woman with Eyes Closed, the second opera by the Philadelphia-based Pulitzer Prize and three-time Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon whose first opera, Cold Mountain, won a 2016 International Opera Award after its acclaimed East Coast premiere at Opera Philadelphia. Originally scheduled to premiere in Festival O20, Woman with Eyes Closed features a libretto by Jerre Dye.

The Listeners is a thriller about social rejection, suburban loneliness, and the role of charismatic leaders in our society. Based on an original story by Jordan Tannahill, the story is inspired by an actual phenomenon called "the global hum," a low-pitched sound that people around the world claim to hear.

Lileana Blain-Cruz directs the production, which is designed by Tony-award winner Adam Rigg and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. American soprano Nicole Heaston sings the central role of Claire Devon, a middle-class mother living in a southwestern U.S. suburb who notices a "hum," a high-frequency environmental noise that only a select few people, the "Listeners," can hear. A community organization quickly forms to solve the mystery of the hum, but when a de facto leader suggests a spiritual significance the meetings become increasingly cult-like, ritualized experiences. It becomes clear that this community of "Listeners" is on a collision course of destruction.

"It's both a psychological thriller and an intimate portrait of modern family life," says Mazzoli. "From the first words that are sung - 'This is how we live now. Unbelievable.' - to the shocking final twist, this piece has been a joy to write and a thrill to bring to life with our amazing creative team, led by director Lileana Blain-Cruz. Jordan Tannahill's story and Royce Vavrek's libretto cut through to the reality of the chaos and longing that roils underneath every seemingly 'normal' family, and in the hearts of everyone who dares to pursue their true destiny."

Vavrek adds that "The Listeners is an opera that is in dialogue with our 21st century experience, a work that seeks to illuminate what it means to be a citizen of the world right now."

Acclaimed music critic and author Alex Ross calls The Listeners "a potent, chilling and excruciatingly relevant work" (The Rest is Noise). In the New Yorker, Ross labels Missy among "a growing cohort of American women taking possession of contemporary opera," going on to say The Listeners is "one of the year's strongest music-theatre scores."

The Philadelphia cast includes baritone Troy Cook as Claire's husband, Paul Devon, and soprano Lindsey Reynolds as their teen daughter, Ashley. Bass Kevin Burdette returns in the role of Howard Bard, leader of the Listeners, with mezzo Rehanna Thelwell as Angela Rose, Howard's right-hand woman. Baritones John Moore (Breaking the Waves) and Michael Sumuel also star as members of the group.

The opera is co-commissioned and co-produced with Norwegian National Opera, where it made its world premiere in 2022, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The world premiere production of Woman with Eyes Closed is a new Opera Philadelphia commission inspired by the real-life 2012 theft of seven masterpieces from Rotterdam's Kunsthal Museum. At first, the mother of the prime suspect confessed to incinerating these priceless artworks to protect her son, but she subsequently denied it. Never recovered, their fate remains shrouded in mystery.

Higdon initially found herself drawn to the story's unsolved puzzle, and then to one of the missing works itself: Lucian Freud's 2002 painting Woman with Eyes Closed. The composer's emotional response was shared both by librettist Jerre Dye, whose past commissions include works for Washington National Opera and Seattle Opera, and by German director Christian Räth, a "real genius" (Musical America) whose productions have graced stages from the Vienna State Opera to the Metropolitan Opera.

Committed to capturing the unsolved mystery at the story's heart, the creative team devised multiple endings; each audience will see the plot play out in one of three different ways. And by casting the thief's mother as their protagonist, and having her see in Freud's painting an irresistible resemblance to her own dead mother, the team found in their story a way to explore the power of art. As Higdon explains: "This story is fascinating on several different levels: weighing the value of art in an individual's life versus what that art gives to the wider world; and what would a parent do to protect a child? In these questions, where are the 'moral lines' and when should those lines be crossed?"

Dye adds: "This was my challenge as the librettist: so, art lands in the hands of someone who has no understanding of art and no relationship with art. What does it take for that art to create an emotional reaction in her heart and mind?"

Higdon created the central role of Mona, mother of the thief, expressly for Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals-winner Meredith Arwady, "a young contralto with deep notes that feel like a force of nature" (LA Times). In Opera Philadelphia's world premiere production, Arwady will be joined by tenor Kevin Ray, also seen this season at LA Opera and the Met, who plays the part of her son, thief Tomas. Both making company debuts, British-Singaporean mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, "a knockout performer" (The Times of London), sings the Museum Curator, with Chinese bass Wei Wu, who made his Opera Philadelphia debut in 2021 as Sparafucile in Rigoletto, as the police inspector.


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