for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass and actor/dancer, with chamber orchestra
libretto by Royce Vavrek
commissioned by the Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and Miller Theatre
When Washington National Opera first asked me to create a new chamber opera, my librettist Royce Vavrek and I set out to find a story that was timely, unusual, and uniquely American. We found the perfect inspiration in the writing of Karen Russell, who in 2013 published the short story on which the opera is based. Russell’s story is a surreal and haunting commentary on the American dream as experienced by the Zegners, a fictional family of 1860s homesteaders. This narrative feels newly relevant at this fraught moment in my nation’s history, when people are examining and reevaluating the achievability of the American Dream. The Zegners are a family that does everything “right” and are still undermined by forces beyond their control. These characters have parallels in our contemporary world: a mother who tries to maintain control through domestic order, a father who turns to the bottle under the pressures of supporting a family, children forced to take on responsibilities beyond their years, a lone, deranged man who resorts to violence and destruction. These are ordinary people in an impossible situation, a brutal world where dead children sing, pigs and horses become the audience for one’s deepest secrets, and zombie-like sodbusters wander the desolate prairie. Pushed to the edge by poverty and ultimately undermined by fate, the Zegners’ fixation on “proving up” never wanes. The story’s surrealism suggested to me a music unmoored from time; the score includes imagined fiddle tunes, Baroque gestures, scrap metal percussion, seven acoustic guitars, eight harmonicas and harpsichord in addition to the chamber ensemble.
I am honored to have been commissioned by Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and New York’s Miller Theatre, all of whom presented this opera in 2018. I am thrilled to present this original cast recording from the Opera Omaha production, featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Christopher Rountree.