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Press Released: 21 Apr 2016

OPERA America Announces Recipients of Opera Grants for Female Composers

Supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation

Seven Composers and Seven Opera Companies Awarded a Total of $200,00

OPERA America, the national service organization for opera and the nation’s leading champion for American opera, is pleased to announce the latest recipients of Discovery Grants and Commissioning Grants from the Opera Grants for Female Composers program, made possible through the generosity of The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

Launched in December 2013, the Opera Grants for Female Composers program consists of two granting components: Discovery Grants of up to $15,000 that are awarded directly to female composers to advance new works, and Commissioning Grants of up to $50,000 that are awarded to opera companies in support of commissions of female composers.

The most recent round of Discovery Grants attracted 68 applicants, and an independent adjudication panel selected seven composers to receive a total of $100,000. The recipients are:

  • Julia Adolphe for So Donia Speaks
  • Mary Ellen Childs for On Beyond
  • Emily Doolittle for Jan Tait and the Bear
  • Nkeiru Okoye for We’ve Got Our Eye On You
  • Rene Orth for Machine
  • Elena Ruehr for Crafting the Bonds
  • Laura Elise Schwendinger for Artemisia

This is the third round of Discovery Grants to be awarded since the program’s inception. See below for composer biographies and summaries of their operas.

A separate independent adjudication panel selected seven Professional Company Members of OPERA America to receive Commissioning Grants totaling $100,000. The recipients are:

  • American Opera Projects (Brooklyn, NY) for Victoria Bond’s Gulliver’s Travels
  • Ardea Arts/Family Opera Initiative (New York, NY) for Kitty Brazelton’s Animal Tales
  • Beth Morrison Projects (Brooklyn, NY) for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s The Living Light
  • The Glimmerglass Festival (Cooperstown, NY) for an opera by Jeanine Tesori (title to be announced)
  • Houston Grand Opera for Laura Kaminsky’s Some Light Emerges
  • Opera Colorado (Denver, CO) for Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter
  • Opera Columbus for Korine Fujiwara’s The Flood of 1913

This is the second round of Commissioning Grants to be awarded since the program’s inception. See below for summaries of the operas.

OPERA America has awarded almost $13 million over the past 30 years in support of new American operas. Until the launch of the Opera Grants for Female Composers program in 2013, however, fewer than five percent of the organization’s grants supporting repertoire development had been awarded to works by female composers. Opera Grants for Female Composers seek to promote the development of works by women, increase diversity across the field and raise the visibility of women writing for the operatic medium. In its three years, the Opera Grants for Female Composers grant program has garnered applications from 198 individual composers and 18 opera companies.

“Leaders in the opera field have made a bold commitment to address gender parity across all sectors of the industry, both artistic and administrative. We are proud to be a driver of this movement through Opera Grants for Female Composers and the response from the field has greatly exceeded our expectations,” stated Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America. “The generosity of The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation has enabled us to award half a million dollars over the past three years to female composers and the companies producing their work. These grants have invigorated our art form with a wealth of new works that display the extraordinary skill of their composers, as well as a diverse range of artistic sensibilities.”

The independent adjudication panelists for the Discovery Grants were director Jennifer Aylmer, soprano; Mark Campbell, librettist; Robin Guarino, stage director; Miah Im, conductor/coach; Welz Kauffman, president and CEO, Ravinia; and Anne LeBaron, composer. The panelists for the Commissioning Grants were Robin Guarino, director; John Musto, composer; Emily Pulley, soprano; Gene Scheer, librettist; and Ted Taylor, conductor/coach.

Information about the next round of Discovery Grants will be available in October 2016, and Commissioning Grants will be announced in February 2017.

2016 Discovery Grant Recipients

Julia Adolphe, composer
So Donia Speaks
Libretto by Nahal Navidar

Julia Adolphe’s music has been described as “alive with invention” (The New Yorker) and “colorful, mercurial, deftly orchestrated” (The New York Times). Current commissions include a viola concerto for the New York Philharmonic and principal violist Cynthia Phelps. The commission, supported by The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, follows the New York Philharmonic’s 2014 premiere of Adolphe’s orchestral work Dark Sand, Sifting Light. Adolphe has received numerous awards, including a 2016 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award and a 2015 Charles Ives Scholarship. Her collaboration with Nahal Navidar, who wrote the concept, story and libretto of So Donia Speaks, began in 2013. Together, she and Navidar have received choral commissions from James Conlon and Suzi Digby. A playwright who employs magical elements to awaken the expanse of human emotion, Navidar writes with inherent lyricism, inspiring Adolphe to bring her complex characters to musical life. Adolphe and Navidar strive to authentically promote underrepresented voices on the American stage. For more information, visit juliaadolphe.com.

So Donia Speaks tells the story of Donia, an Iranian-American travel journalist falsely accused of espionage in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. In solitary confinement, she encounters fellow inmates who teach her the truth about the Iranian spirit. Inspired by events in the librettist’s family history, the opera examines the human will to survive in the face of injustice.

Mary Ellen Childs, composer
On Beyond
Libretto by Claire Porter

Mary Ellen Childs has been acclaimed for creating bold interdisciplinary works that integrate music, theater and movement in fresh and unexpected ways. She has received commissions from the Farnsworth House and Chicago Architecture Biennial, ETHEL, Kronos Quartet, Walker Art Center, Chamber Music America, and The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, among others, and her works have been performed at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, Lincoln Center, New Music America in Miami, Other Minds Festival and elsewhere around the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, Russia and Cuba. Over the last 30 years, she has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a 2011 United States Artists Fellowship, Bush Foundation Fellowships, McKnight Foundation Fellowships, Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Awards, and support from the NEA, American Composers Forum, Live Music for Dance NY/NJ and Creative Capital. She has been invited to residencies at Yaddo, Duffy Institute, Ucross, Djerassi and the Bellagio Center in Italy. For more information, visit maryellenchilds.com.

On Beyond follows the stories of three women in aviation history: Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot license; Jackie Cochran, one of World War II’s “Fly Girls”; and Jerrie Cobb, one of the Mercury 13, a group of women who underwent NASA testing in the 1960s in hopes of becoming America’s first female astronauts.

Emily Doolittle, composer
Jan Tait and the Bear
Libretto by Emily Doolittle and Peter Guy

Emily Doolittle’s music has been described as “eloquent and effective” (The WholeNote) and “masterful” (Musical Toronto). Doolittle has been commissioned by such ensembles as Orchestre Métropolitain, Tafelmusik, Symphony Nova Scotia and Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, and she has received support from the Sorel Organization, Canada Council for the Arts and Fulbright Program, among others. Recent projects include Seal Songs, a 30-minute piece based on Gaelic selkie folklore, which was commissioned by Paragon and the Voice Factory Youth Choir (Glasgow), and a concerto for violinist Calvin Dyck and the Vancouver Island Symphony. In 2011, she spent five months as composer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Originally from Nova Scotia, Doolittle was educated at Dalhousie University, Indiana University, the Koninklijk Conservatorium and Princeton University. From 2008 to 2015, she was on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. For more information, visit emilydoolittle.com.

Jan Tait and the Bear is a 45-minute chamber opera based on a medieval Shetlandic folktale. Tait offends King Harald and is sentenced to death, but he is offered his freedom if he can kill a troublesome bear. Tait recognizes the bear as a kindred spirit and instead saves them both.

Nkeiru Okoye, composer
We’ve Got Our Eye On You
Libretto by David Cote

Hailed as “sublime” by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, compositions by Nkeiru Okoye have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Grand Rapids Symphony, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra and countless regional orchestras. Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom received a 2013 Art Works grant from the National Endowments for the Arts. She has garnered numerous additional awards, commissions and commendations from organizations such as Meet the Composer, MetLife Creative Connections, John Duffy Composers Institute, Composers Collaborative Inc., the Walt Whitman Project, Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music, Ensemble Pi and ASCAP. Okoye is a board member of Composers Now. She holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Rutgers University. She is the director of music theory and composition at the State University of New York at New Paltz. For more information, visit nkeiruokoye.com.

We’ve Got Our Eye On You is loosely based on the ancient Greek myth of Perseus and the Gray Sisters, who share an external eyeball. Perseus intends to use his Olympian good looks to learn Medusa’s whereabouts from the sisters but — as a Greeks chorus asks — who’s seducing whom?

Rene Orth, composer
Libretto by Jason Kim

Originally from Dallas, Rene Orth creates music that has been described as “whimsical, spikey, sometimes show-bizy, always dramatic, reflective, rarely predictable, and often electronic” (Musical America). Recent and upcoming projects include commissions from Festival d’Aix-en- Provence, Women’s Sacred Music Project, The Louisville Orchestra and the Barnes Foundation. Her most recent chamber opera, Empty the House (libretto by Mark Campbell), received its stage premiere with the Curtis Opera Theatre in a sold-out run in January 2016. In 2014, Washington National Opera commissioned Orth for a chamber opera, An American Man (libretto by Jason Kim), which premiered at the Kennedy Center as part of WNO’s American Opera Initiative. She has also held residencies at Yaddo and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and she currently serves on the theory and composition faculty for Luzerne Music Center. Orth holds the Edward B. Garrigues Fellowship at the Curtis Institute of Music and studies with David Ludwig. For more information, visit reneorth.com.

A chip. A brain. A computer inside your head to fix all your bad feelings. A chamber opera told in 90 minutes, Machine follows the chilling story of an Asian-American scientist as she elects to plant a chip in her head and become the world's first perfect, emotionless human.

Elena Ruehr, composer
Crafting the Bonds
Libretto by Gretchen Henderson

Elena Ruehr is known for her bold lyricism, which is informed by her ability to combine musical structures from worlds as diverse as the Second Viennese School and minimalism. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow (2014) and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute (2008). Ruehr was composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, who recorded her opera Toussaint Before the Spirits (BMOP Sound) and her complete orchestral works (BMOP Sound, O’Keeffe Images). In addition to her work with BMOP, her recordings include Averno (Avie Records, Trinity Choir, 2012), How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr (Cypress String Quartet, 2010), Jane Wang considers the dragonfly (Albany, various artists, 2009) and Lift (Avie Records, Irina Muresanu, Jennifer Kloetzel, Sarah Bob and Ethan Filner). Her six string quartets have been championed by the Cypress, Biava, Borromeo, Lark and Shanghai string quartets. She has taught at MIT since 1991. For more information, visit elenaruehr.org.

Crafting the Bonds is a full-length opera spanning three centuries based on the rediscovery of The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, the first known novel by an African-American woman. The opera fuses past with present, including factual and archetypal characters, to ask larger questions about the lives and afterlives of stories.

Laura Elise Schwendinger, composer
Libretto by Ginger Strand

The first composer to win the Berlin Prize, Laura Schwendinger is a professor of composition at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her music has been performed by Dawn Upshaw (TDK/Naxos DVD), Jennifer Koh, Janine Jansen, Miranda Cuckson, Matt Haimovitz, the Arditti Quartet, the JACK Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, New Juilliard Ensemble, Aspen Ensemble, Miller Theatre, Trinity Choir and Liszt Chamber Orchestra. Honors include those from Guggenheim, Koussevitzky, Fromm, the Radcliffe Institute, ASCAP, the Harvard Musical Association, Chamber Music America and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has held residencies at the Richmond Symphony, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center and the Bogliasco Foundations. Of her work The Boston Globe wrote: “Not a single moment in her works sounds contrived, formulaic … This was shrewd composing, the genuine article” The New York Times described her album High Wire Acts as a “captivating disc” showcasing Schwendinger’s “acute ear for unusual textures” and ability to craft “musical short stories of somnambulant fragility and purpose.” For more information, visit lauraschwendinger.com.

Artemisia is based on the life Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. An important follower of Caravaggio and the first women member of the Accademia in Florence, Gentileschi was raped at age 16 by Agostino Tassi, an artist with whom she studied. Tassi was sentenced to prison but never served time, and the case overshadowed Gentileschi’s achievements for years. However, today she is regarded as one of the greatest painters of her time.

2016 Commissioning Grant Recipients

American Opera Projects (Brooklyn, NY)
Gulliver’s Travels
Victoria Bond, composer
Stephen Greco, librettist

Gulliver’s Travels is a “mythological burlesque” based on the Jonathan Swift novel. Appropriate for family audiences in the tradition of Hansel and Gretel, the opera is a journey of the imagination, where the world isn’t limited to what you see or know. Gulliver travels to four strange and exotic countries: Lilliput, a miniature land where Gulliver is a giant; Brobdingnag, a land of giants, where Gulliver is miniature; Laputa, the floating city of intellectual pursuits; and the land of the Houyhnhnms, where horses are evolved and humans are primitive “Yahoos.” Gulliver’s adventures and observations of the follies and vices of man form the basis of the opera, which blends satire, humor and drama. Told through music and animated objects, the opera is created for the adult in every child. The four short acts are performed without intermission, totaling 70 minutes.

Ardea Arts/Family Opera Initiative (New York, NY)
Animal Tales
Kitty Brazelton, composer
George Plimpton, librettist

How do we hop off the treadmill, reclaim our “inner howl” or expand our world beyond “Polly want a cracker?” Come along with Hamster, Goldfish, Dog, Frog, Turtle, Parrot and Horse as they visit veterinarian Dr. Alfred J. McGee, each wanting to change his or her life markedly. Animal Tales, which is directed by Grethe Barrett Holby, is a Disney-length, two-act opera-musical about daring to be different, overcoming stereotypes and finding purpose and happiness in life, all told through song, dance and puppetry — a rambunctious masterpiece bursting with fun, optimism and insight into the human journey. Audiences of all ages will delight in its optimistic but provocative look at life.

Kitty Brazelton was the recipient of a 2015 Discovery Grant for The Art of Memory.

Beth Morrison Projects (Brooklyn, NY)
The Living Light
Sarah Kirkland Snider, composer
Nathaniel Bellows, librettist

The Living Light is about Hildegard of Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess born in 1098. Hildegard was a writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, polymath and founder of scientific natural history in Germany. This opera focuses on a particular time in Hildegard’s life, beginning in 1141, when she first began writing down her mystic visions — an act of bravery, defiance and expression undermined (and inspired) by a series of paralyzing illnesses. The Living Light explores the notion of a crippling gift, the doubt and jealousy such gifts can engender in others, and the complexities of belief — belief in the natural and immaterial world, in the sanctity and guidance of God, and the glory and failings of the mortal self.

The Glimmerglass Festival (Cooperstown, NY)
Title to be announced
Jeanine Tesori, composer
Tazewell Thompson, librettist

This new opera tells the story of an African-American family — a father, mother and son —and a community torn apart when the boy is killed by gun violence. Neighbors tell their stories, proclaiming injustice. A media-minded minister, dedicated to turning this tragedy into a political issue, proves to be a volatile confessor to the grieving father. A chorus of black youths, representing other murdered boys, attempts to make sense of the world they departed through music and dance. The voices of the men and women, and particularly the boys, come together to recreate a sense of community and restore a sense of hope. At the center is a caring family, with an involved father who becomes overwhelmed with guilt that he was unable protect his son, and a mother who falls completely apart as she experiences the unbearable loss of the child she carried and nurtured.


Houston Grand Opera
Some Light Emerges
Laura Kaminsky, composer
Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, librettists

In the mid-1960s, Dominique de Menil, the renowned art collector and a key player in Houston’s contemporary art scene, commissioned the noted American artist Mark Rothko to create a series of paintings, as well as the ideal gallery to house them. De Menil also envisioned that the resultant Rothko Chapel (which opened in 1971) would serve as a spiritual space for “those of all faiths, or no faith.” Some Light Emerges is a new chamber opera that is set mostly within the Rothko Chapel and chronicles the direct and tangential intersections of five people who visit the chapel across four decades, as well as the struggles and triumphs of Dominique de Menil in realizing her dream. Through the personal stories of its characters — both moving and humorous — Some Light Emerges reveals how political and spiritual conflicts can be better understood and ultimately resolved through art, while honoring the people who create and support such art. Some Light Emerges is part of Houston Grand Opera’s ongoing Song of Houston series, an initiative that aims to tell the diverse stories of Houston through words and music.

Laura Kaminsky was the recipient of a 2014 Discovery Grant for As One.

Opera Colorado (Denver, CO)
The Scarlet Letter
Lori Laitman, composer
David Mason, librettist

Published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter immediately caught America’s attention and has never lost its grip. The story, which details how individuals react to and survive severely repressive communities saturated with religious dogma, could easily be played out today. Alongside protagonist Hester Prynne, a young woman who has borne a child out of wedlock, we observe how a religious community treats an adulterer and her daughter, Pearl; how Hester remains vigilant and keeps the identity of her child’s father a secret; and how Arthur Dimmesdale, the town priest and Pearl’s father, deals with crippling guilt. The Scarlet Letter looks at individuals who hold fast to their personal beliefs and secrets, to protect themselves and others; how their mistaken actions result from fears of being judged and disliked; and how people either make peace with their decisions or live out lives of tortured conflict because of them.

Opera Columbus
The Flood of 1913
Korine Fujiwara, composer
Stephen Wadsworth, librettist

A collaboration between Opera Columbus and ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, The Flood of 1913 tells a story of human connection through loss and shared tragedy, centered around the devastation of Columbus’ Franklinton neighborhood in the Great Flood of 1913, the most catastrophic weather disaster in Ohio history. The Flood of 1913 will premiere in Columbus in 2018–2019. The opera will tell a dramatic story based on historical accounts of the flood, depicting the intense and lingering impact of the disaster on multiple generations of one family. In the words of Korine Fujiwara: “The Flood of 1913 is a story rooted in location, yet the struggles endured by its survivors and victims are timeless and transformative. The Flood is poignantly relevant to all who have experienced a traumatic event, giving voice to lives lost and survivors seeking meaningful answers.”


For more information on OPERA America, visit About Us.

For press inquiries, contact Press@operaamerica.org or 212.796.8628.