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Moon, Bride, Dogs II at NANOworks: a work develops from awkward teenager to real chamber opera

photo cred. Stephanie Havey

Moon, Bride, Dogs gets a make-over

Last week I had the privilege to attend the North American New Opera (aka NANOworks) Workshop in Atlanta GA, where Moon, Bride, Dogs II (libretto by Cristina Fríes), a 20-minute chamber opera, was reworked in composition and fully produced by Stephanie Havey (stage direction), Chaowen Ting (music direction), and Jennifer Jolley (artistic director). The cast included Adelaide Boedecker (soprano), Daniel Wiesman (tenor), and Mitch Gindelsperger (baritone) – all not just excellent singers and wonderful people, but great actors, too. A rare combination. In addition, I had the chance to meet and hang out with the other conducting and directing fellows and learn from their work.

The original piece began in late 2017 as an inter-departmental collaboration at UC Davis with fiction writer Cristina Fríes, facilitated by Prof. Kurt Rohde between the music department and creative writing program in graduate studies. Among the samples of Tina’s work I saw was a short story involving three characters called “Moon, Bride, Dogs.” The surreal imagery, intense narrative, and complex themes attracted me immediately. Out of all the various writing samples from different writers, I chose this story to set to music, and Tina worked with me in adapting it into a libretto. I was lucky to have many long and interesting conversations with her about the story and our piece.

Ryan Suleiman (composer), Jennifer Jolley (artistic director), Cristina Fríes (librettist)

Only after selecting this short story did I realize that its narrative format led me no choice but to set it as an opera, though due to various practical constraints (i.e., length, lack of staging), I designed it as a 13-minute “opera-song” hybrid for soprano, tenor, and pianist, with input from my professors and friends at UCD. This piece was premiered as simply Moon, Bride, Dogs,by the Brooklyn Art Song Society, along with other works by UCD composer/writer teams. It was a flawed piece that I still felt had some merit.

In January 2019, the piece was accepted into the NANOworks workshop, and in the following months I received more feedback on the piece from the artistic team, along with the opportunity to revise it and re-orchestrate it for three singers and piano quartet. With Tina’s help, several lines were added and I composed new scenes.

Through the addition of string trio, baritone, new musical and narrative material, the score, which we could Moon, Bride, Dogs II, became something far more substantial and refined than the original. It went from this strange proto-opera to a fully developed mini chamber opera.

An out-of-body experience

Stage director Stephanie Havey (center) discussing with the cast and the composer. photo cred. NANOworks

But even after drawing the final barline, the I found that process of creation was far from over. In late May I arrived in Atlanta to begin a four-day process of rehearsal, discussions, and ultimately a performance of the piece.

Though I’ve had the chance to watch opera rehearsals before, watching my own composition rehearsed and staged, the writer/librettist sitting next to me, was a kind of out-of-body experience. As Stephanie spoke with the cast about her staging ideas and blocking, so many new and surprising elements within this piece, which apparently Tina and I created, were revealed. The tension between the protagonist Idiot Girl’s search for the truth and her memories against her experiences of loss and trauma were illuminated. The complex character of the Dogs, who cruelly pursue Idiot Girl while enduring their own suffering, came to life.

Mitch Gindelsperger (Dogs) and Adelaide Broedecker (Idiot Girl). not pictured: Daniel Wiesman (Moon)

Having had plenty of concert works performed, I’ve learned over years, like any composer, that usually what you watch unfold onstage ends up being a bit different from what you imagine in your head, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. However, this experience of having an opera produced took that sensation to a totally new level. During the rehearsals and performance, I felt like I was watching an event unfold that I hadn’t even written, that wasn’t even my own piece. I created this thing, and not only was it onstage without me, but it was actually talking to me, teaching me things I didn’t know. It was growing without me. This really speaks to the beauty and wonder of artistic collaboration, but also the talent and dedication of the artistic team and of the performers, who had obviously dedicated a great deal of time and thought towards carrying our work off of the page and into the real world.

Stay tuned for video of the full performance.

Onward to Bones of Girls

Though I’m hopeful Moon, Bride, Dogs II will find its way into the hands of other creators, Tina and I aren’t done yet. Last year, before our collaboration with NANOworks, I reached out to Sacramento baritone, professor, composer, actor (I probably missed something) and opera-director extraordinaire Omari Tau, and proposed a kind of expanded version of the original Moon, Bride, Dogsfor the vocal/piano collective Rogue Music Project, of which he is a member.

Bones of Girls work station

During our first project together, I had to ask Tina to cut a lot of material due to our time constraints. For this project, which we’re calling Bones of Girls,I asked Tina to expand the original libretto. I hoped this would be a chance for her to take more liberties, work under less constraints. She added a number of new passages and scenes, as well as re-ordering or tweaking lines here and there. Having just arrived back from the NANOworks workshop, Tina and I are both excited to see what Omari and RMP do with the work, which we know will offer even more surprises. The cast will include the local talents / friends soprano Carrie Hennessey (Idiot Girl), tenor Kevin Doherty (Moon), Omari Tau (Dogs / director), and Jennifer Reason (piano) of RMP. They’ll premiere the work at the Festival of New American Music in Sacramento, November 2019.

Tina gave me her new libretto several months ago. I’m now in the process of writing these new scenes and re-stitching this new piece. Now back to work… music doesn’t write itself O_o.


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