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Utah Symphony And Utah Opera Commemorate 150th Anniversary Of Transcontinental Railroad

Utah Symphony And Utah Opera Commemorate 150th Anniversary Of Transcontinental Railroad

Utah Symphony and Utah Opera (USUO) unveil a series of creative projects to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike, the ceremonial final spike that joined the rails of America's First Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. After a concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Friday, May 10 at 8:00 p.m.-exactly 150 years to the day since the railroad's completion-USUO presents performances throughout the month of May that feature works newly composed to mark this anniversary. These events and many others are highlighted as part of Spike 150 (, a statewide effort to celebrate the Golden Spike.

USUO President and CEO Paul Meecham said:

"We are thrilled to be a cultural participant in the celebration of this landmark event 150 years ago, connecting the East and West of our great nation. It presents a timely opportunity to reflect on and express gratitude for the hardships experienced by the mostly immigrant workforce that constructed the railroad, and to pay homage to their own native cultures. Through new art it brings to life an historic moment in time that many Utahns and Americans may be unfamiliar with."

Utah Symphony has co-commissioned a three-movement orchestral work, Transcend, from Grammy-nominated Chinese-born composer Zhou Tian. Music Director Thierry Fischer conducts Transcend at Abravanel Hall on Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 18 at 5:30 p.m. The concert program also includes Copland's Appalachian Spring and Suite from Billy the Kid. The new work was commissioned by a consortium of 14 orchestras along the path of the Transcontinental Railroad. The consortium was organized by the Reno Philharmonic, which gives the world premiere.

Describing his inspiration for Transcend, Zhou Tian said:

"[The Transcontinental Railroad's] cultural heritage includes the contribution of a thousands-strong Chinese and Irish workforce who toiled in severe weather and cruel working conditions. ... As a Chinese-born composer who immigrated to this country ... I was moved to create this new work to tell a musical story, to convey a sense of spiritual perseverance, and to pay tribute to my own cultural heritage."

Utah Symphony's co-commissioning of this work reflects Mr. Fischer's commitment to new music for orchestra. During his tenure, the orchestra has commissioned and premiered works by Simon Holt, Michael Jarrell, Nico Muhly, Andrew Norman, and Augusta Read Thomas, among other composers. The commissions from the latter three were recorded and released as Dawn to Dust on Reference Recordings in spring 2016.

Utah Opera has commissioned a series of ten-minute operas on themes related to the Golden Spike. The four operas premiere in late May 2019 in Brigham City, Ogden, and Salt Lake City and will then be performed in community concerts and the company's Random Acts of Opera over the next few seasons.

Utah Opera Artistic Director Christopher McBeth described the company's commitment to supporting local talent:

"Utah Opera is pleased to support this historic event by creating opportunities for Utah artists to collaborate in the creation of new operatic works. These ten-minute operas showcase the convergence of local creatives who make contemporary opera relevant in telling very human stories that have shaped the fabric of our state and country. It is a powerful example of the storytelling, music, and art that constitute opera, and we are so happy to support its creation."

The four commissioned operas are:

  • Completing the Picture, by composer Michael Ching and librettist / researcher / choreographer Victoria Panella Bourns. This opera fills in the larger picture of human involvement on the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many men posed in the historic photograph above, but no Chinese are pictured. The opera will include depictions of the "Strange Parade" Westerners reported when the Chinese arrived, as well as the difficulty of their labor on the railroad.
  • The Stone, the Tree and the Bird, by composer Jacob Lee and librettist Christine McDonough. The work depicts a campfire conversation between three railworkers the night before the 1869 ceremony in Promontory, Utah. They dream and plan what they will do now that the historic job is done.
  • Burial by composer Tony Solitro and librettist Paisley Rekdal. The work centers on a confrontation between a town mayor and a café owner about how to appropriately bury and honor Chinese men who helped build the railroad. The opera explores themes of belonging and identity: Are the dead Chinese to be treated as Asian aliens or American workers?
  • No Ladies in the Lady's Book by composer Lisa DeSpain and librettist Rachel Peters. This comic opera explores the often-overlooked contributions of women to the success of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Performances of all four operas take place on Monday, May 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Brigham City Fine Arts Center (Brigham City, UT), Tuesday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ogden Union Station (Ogden, UT), and Wednesday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gallivan Center (Salt Lake City, UT).

The dramaturge and director for the Utah Opera ten-minute operas project is Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia. After working for the Israeli Opera for over a decade, she moved to the U.S. in 2012 and has produced performances at the Canadian Opera Company, Cincinnati Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Philadelphia Orchestra, among other institutions. As dramaturge for this Utah Opera project, she has been involved with the operas as the creative teams have worked on them throughout the season. She consulted with them in December about storyline and character development; participated in a February 15 work session on drafts, with Utah Opera Resident Artists singing the roles; and after the final opera scores are submitted, she will also serve as Stage Director during the May 2019 production period.

The above projects are part of USUO's annual Cultural Festival, which highlights a special theme each year in order to connect with the local community through music. For more information, visit

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