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Black House Collective To Premiere Five New Chamber Operas

As they waited for other musicians and singers to arrive, composer Hunter Long and mezzo-soprano Anna Hoard lounged among music stands and percussion instruments in a sixth-floor room in the Town Pavilion building in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Hoard sings the role of Charlotte in Long’s new chamber opera titled Lost in Translation, one of five new operas that will have their world premiere on Friday.

Black House Collective, with funding from a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation SEED Grant, commissioned operas by five young composers exploring the theme of cinematic love. Each opera shares its name with the film that inspired it and will be performed by live singers in front of a screen. Film excerpts will be projected silently behind the performers, providing a visual backdrop. 

For Long, the project has been a difficult one to describe from the beginning. “That’s been the hard thing — trying to talk about it,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to explain."

“It was a hard project to name too,” says Hoard. “Chamber operas, but with movies (laughs).” 

“I think 'chamber opera with film' is the best way to describe it. I tried to call it 'film score operas' for a period of time and that’s just not a thing (laughs)," Long says. "I feel like the 'chamber operas with film' also exonerates the composers. It’s like here’s our interpretation of a moving image and so it's not so much here’s us being real literal about it. So it takes a little pressure off.”

Hoard will perform in three of the five operas. She says each work presents a different vocal challenge. 

L’Étoile de Mer is actually pretty difficult,” says Hoard. “It’s very tonally challenging and rhythmically precise. It’s a beautiful piece. But I was surprised. It’s sort of like reverse lip-synching in some of the other pieces. So trying not to get caught up in making sure that things match the film and to stay focused on the score and on what’s happening musically can be a little bit of a challenge but it’s been really fun.”

As the two talked, conductor J.J. Pearse arrived, positioning himself at the front of the room, making notes in his score. 

“I think what people will really grab onto is the aspect of the films,” says Pearse. “We know what happens in the film but we may not be aware of what happens with the music or the underscore of the film and I think the goal of each of the composers was to capture a different mood or capture, in their own musical world, maybe a different emotion from the film.”

Pearse says he was intrigued by William David Cooper's opera, based on the 1963 film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

“The original underscore for that film is massive,” says Pearse. “It was one of the most expensive films ever produced in Hollywood and I think the emotion that has been captured by the composer Will Cooper is this very, very dark and psychological, much more introspective approach to everything that’s happening instead of the grandiosity."

He adds, "All of these scores are very unique in their own right and I think they do very, very well to capture a new idea.”

Black House Collective presents its New Operas project, Entanglement: Love on Film, August 22 at 6:30 pm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Atkins Auditorium, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-751-1278. 

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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