April 13, 2014

Katie Luther: The Opera - Recap and Prospects

The Marquee at St. Mark's on performance day.
Several months ago I published a couple of posts about my opera about Katie Luther, the wife of Martin Luther. Ingeniously, it was titled Katie Luther: The Opera.  (We toyed with La Forza del Katie, but rejected it on several grounds. Also nixed Dialogues of  the Katies, Le Nozze di Katie, Katie and the Night Visitors and Dead Katie Walking. Golly, titles are HARD!)

So how'd it go? Was it performed as scheduled? Have I been strutting proudly with chest out since last October, or curled in the fetal position, moaning softly?

It was fine. Let me tell you about it, so you'll see that not all opera premieres are as glamorous as those you read about in Opera News.

To recap: this project was the brainchild of Lori Lewis, a soprano who came to singing later in life than most artists. You  may be familiar with Lori's other brainchild, the popular website Everyday Opera, a compendium of material about fashion, decor, cuisine and (duh) opera. Two summers ago, Lori (who was already familiar with one of my children's operas) phoned me to ask if I'd be interested in writing a one-woman music drama for her to perform. Lori is a lifelong Lutheran; Katharina von Bora, who became Luther's spouse, is a character Lori has long admired and dreamed of portraying on the stage.

As Lori received PDF files of each scene as I completed them, she expressed growing excitement about the piece. She showed the piano-vocal score to professionals in the opera world - coaches, voice teachers and other artists - and they too all expressed the general idea that "you've really got something here."

Lori secured the services of a stage director, the talented Vanessa Dinning, to help bring the character to life and block the action. It became time to seek performance venues. Who wants a cool opera at their church or theater? Fliers were generated and sent around the country. Responses were fielded. At one point, four seperate performances were slated in four states. The logical time to feature an opera dealing with Lutheran history is Reformation Weekend, traditionally the last weekend in October. Lori can't sing in four places at once, so other artists were engaged.
St Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church

In the end, there were three simultaneous world premieres in three cities:

  • Albuquerque New Mexico saw two performances on the campus of the University of New Mexico, a performance in which the young Katie of Scene 1 was sung by Melissa Carter with Lori singing the final two scenes;
  • Mezzo soprano Janet Hopkins, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera stage, sang the complete opera at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri; and
  • Baltimore Maryland was the site for a third performance at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church featuring soprano Elizabeth Medeiros Hogue.
I engaged Elizabeth for the Baltimore show; she's a long-time friend who lives not far from my office at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. My wife Ruth Winters, as glorious a collaborative pianist as you'll ever find, once again played Clara Schumann to my Robert and accompanied. As curious as I was to hear Melissa, Lori and Janet, of course I was at the Baltimore performance and can only report on what transpired there. I did hear good reports from Albuquerque and St. Louis, but can only speculate on what those artists and their pianists made of the score.

St. Marks is a gorgeous old church in downtown Baltimore. The sanctuary is blessed with the kind of acoustics in which a burp sounds like a Stradivarius playing Brahms. The three of us - soprano, pianist and composer - drove up from Virginia on Friday the 25th in order to spend Saturday afternoon rehearsing at the church. 

Elizabeth Madeiros Hogue
By now, we had made the executive decision to perform a concert version, replete with period costumes (nun's habit and housedress). To perform the opera with full staging would really have required a conductor, a luxury not in our budget. The burden would be on Elizabeth to create compelling drama through her singing alone. The rehearsals went well, albeit with enough stopping and starting  and mistakes that I mentally prepared myself for a "good but not perfect" rendition.

Though I neglected to count noses, there was a decent crowd Sunday afternoon. Following a post-service church supper, curious opera-goers filed into the sanctuary and half-filled it. I gave a thirty-minute pre-curtain talk, just as I do prior to each Virginia Opera performance, sketching in the history of the project and pointing out certain musical features to listen for. 

What happened next was stunningly remarkable: together, Ruth and Elizabeth produced a flawless, note-perfect, totally inspired performance. It was a perfect storm of artistic commitment and the love of performing from two musicians in total control of the music and their instruments. Best of all, I realized, now having heard the piece brought to life, that my instincts were correct. I had written the piece I meant to write. The moments which seemed effective on paper sounded as I'd hoped they would. It was a very good feeling.

Elizabeth has a large, flexible soprano equally at home in Verdi heroines, Wagner's "Liebestod" or Mozart's Queen of the Night, all of which she's performed onstage. The voice is perfectly and creamily even throughout her range,, with a top that blooms and shimmers. How I wish I had sprung for a recording engineer to capture that performance on tape! 

Two funny anecdotes:

The centerpiece of the opera is a set-piece aria in Scene 2, in which Katie muses on the nature of her marriage. It encompasses a roller-coaster of emotions not unlike Cio-Cio-san's "Un bel di". Realizing that the audience might feel unsure whether or not to applaud at the end of the aria, I decided to act as Elizabeth's "claque" and start the applause. Elizabeth reached the end. I clapped vigorously. A thought-balloon instantly became visible, hovering over the heads of the audience. It said: "What idiot is ruining the show by clapping like an idiot?" I stopped clapping. (Any doubts that they simply didn't like it were dispelled by the lusty and appreciative applause following the end of the opera.) Also:

There was a reception afterwards. The fellowship hall of St. Mark's was all laid out with reception staples: a table with bottles of wine and bowls of punch; trays of finger-foods of every description; and rows of tables with folding chairs set up. When Elizabeth finally entered, following her change out of costume, everyone rose to their feet and cheered. And I? Your humble Composer-and-Blogger? Well, I was seated at one of the tables along with my wife, and some family members who had made the trip in support of my big day, including my sisters Alice and Juliet and Juliet's son and grand-daughter. Now, at one point an elderly woman spotted our table and made a bee-line towards us. I prepared myself for an onslaught of compliments. 

Instead, she brushed past me as if I was one of the folding chairs and grabbed Ruth by both shoulders. "Honey", she announced loudly, "your music was GORGEOUS. Simply GORGEOUS." And then she was gone in search of a glass of chablis.

Did she think Ruth wrote the damn music? When I talked for half an hour about how I went about composing it, was she in the ladies' room? Oh well, no matter. The fact is that for me, the fulfillment of composition stems from the actual experience of creating it and also from hearing it performed with perception and understanding. What others think of it is of little importance, good or bad.

Will Katie live on to see other days? The answer appears to be yes. I demurred on a proposed national tour when it became clear to me that what was being planned would not pan out with the desired results. However, there is a good chance that Katie Luther will be staged at a new opera festival in Copenhagen in 2015, and I've received other requests for perusal scores from those interested in new operas. We shall see.

And - in case  you're interested - Ruth and Elizabeth will be making a CD of my opera that should be ready for sale by Summer, 2014. I'll let you know how to order a copy in a future post.


  1. Congratulations! Sounds like a great accomplishment and a very rewarding experience! I'm glad it will be available on CD.

  2. If there's a waiting list for that CD I want my name prominently positioned on it. My VISA card number is ...oh, maybe that can wait.