New Voices Opera offers emerging IU composers creative growth, opportunities

Guest post courtesy of IU Communications colleague Jaclyn Lansbery.

This weekend, the IU student organization New Voices Opera will present two original productions at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center in the Whikehart Auditorium. Both operas are composed, performed and staffed completely by IU students and alumni.

NVO was started two years ago by Chappell Kingsland, a doctoral student studying composition in the Jacobs School of Music who is now living in Colorado. In the organization’s second year, the group premiered its first full opera, Kingsland’s “Intoxication: America’s Love Affair with Oil.” NVO funds all of the expenses associated with the operas.

The mission behind NVO is to provide student composers the resources to workshop operatic compositions, said Executive Director and Jacobs student Jeremy Johnson in an email.

This season includes a double bill of one-act operas: “Ile” by Ezra Donner, a third-year doctoral student at the Jacobs school, and “Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris” by Eric Lindsay, who recently graduated with a doctoral degree in composition from IU Bloomington. “Ile” and “Cosmic Ray” will show at 8 p.m. Friday, May 2, and Saturday, May 3. The show is free but ticketed.

Art at IU talked to the composers behind this weekend’s upcoming productions.

Comic-book superhero

Two years into working on an opera about American actress and model Anna Nicole Smith, Lindsay learned that a famous composer and librettist had already started collaborating about the same topic.

Eric Lindsay

Eric Lindsay. Credit: Mark Robert Halper.

It wasn’t until NVO sent out a call for submissions in May 2013 that Lindsay decided to work on another opera composition. Lindsay’s opera, “Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris,” is based on an original libretto by poet and friend Tracy Truels.

The story centers on an unemployed 20-something living in his parents’ basement who escapes reality by pretending to be his favorite superhero, Cosmic Ray. The result is an opera set in two alternate realities: the present-day era and a 1960s comic-book world complete with superheroes and a made-up alien language.

Lindsay said he seized the opportunity to create an original opera composition for NVO. “It’s so hard to put together an opera because it involves so many moving parts,” he said. “It is a huge undertaking that a lot of us composers wouldn’t feel empowered enough to take on our own. So to have an organization be like, ‘Hey, we are willing to put in this time on behalf of your work,’ there’s no reason not to jump on it.’”

Singable melodies, lush harmonies

For Donner, creating a fresh opera production was a no-brainer. He stumbled across Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s play “Ile,” which tells the story of an obsessed sea captain on a whaling 1890s ship, and immediately decided he wanted to create an updated opera version.

Composer and IU Jacobs School of Music doctoral student Ezra Donner talks with Bruno Sandes and Ryan Kieran during rehearsals for "Ile." Credit: Olivia Savage.

Composer and IU Jacobs School of Music doctoral student Ezra Donner, sitting at the piano, talks with Bruno Sandes, left, and Ryan Kieran during rehearsals for “Ile.” Credit: Olivia Savage.

“(The play) had everything I wanted – tension, conflict, character development – and it was a concise one-act drama scene, with no scene changes or breaks,” Donner told Art at IU via email. “O’Neill’s words worked surprisingly well for a musical setting, I thought – the only thing I did to adapt the libretto was to make a few substantial cuts.”

Ultimately, Donner said he wanted to combine the drama of 19th-century grand opera with elements of 20th-century modernism to create a musical language that sounds at once contemporary and familiar. “Singable melodies, lush harmonies and orchestral colors provide the backdrop to the tragic story,” he said.

For more information on NVO, visit the organization’s website. Tickets to the operas can be reserved by emailing The Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center is located at 122 S. Walnut St. in downtown Bloomington.

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