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Press Released: 25 Feb 2021

OPERA America Awards IDEA Opera Grants to Support Two New Works by Composers and Librettists of Color

Made Possible by the Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation

OPERA America has awarded the second cycle of IDEA Opera Grants (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) to composer/librettist Damon Davis for Ligeia Mare and composer Liliya Ugay and librettist Sokunthary Svay for Chhlong Tonle (Crossing the River). The grants are generously supported by the Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation, a family foundation committed to promoting equal rights and social justice through education, music, and the law. See below for artist biographies and descriptions of their works.

IDEA Opera Grants (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) support composers and librettists who identify as African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and/or Native American in the development of new operatic works and the advancement of their careers in the opera industry. The winning teams will receive a total prize of $25,000 plus high-quality video recordings of workshops and working performances for promotional use. The winners will be featured on OPERA America’s digital and social platforms and in Opera America Magazine. They and their work will also be introduced to field leaders at OPERA America’s New Works Forum and annual Opera Conference.

Grantees were selected from 46 applicant teams by an independent panel of industry experts consisting of Aubrey Allicock, Grammy-nominated bass-baritone; Lisa Bielawa, composer; David Cote, librettist, playwright, and lyricist; Dr. Ashley Jackson, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies, music department, Hunter College; Cerise Jacobs, Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation; Kathleen Kelly, associate professor, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music; and Thaddeus Strassberger, director and designer.

“Diversifying the voices, the stories, and the faces in opera requires thoughtful activism. The IDEA Opera Grants provide targeted support to elevate BIPOC artists,” stated Cerise Jacobs, president of the Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation. “My heart is full to overflowing from reviewing the work of the many BIPOC artists who applied, and I thank them all for being part of this flowering of a new kind of opera.”

“OPERA America is committed to amplifying the creative voices of composers and librettists of color who enrich the contemporary American opera repertoire and reflect the diversity of the nation,” declared Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America. “We are grateful to the Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation for its commitment to promote social justice through the arts and for entrusting us to nurture BIPOC artists who are ready to make significant contributions to the field of opera.”

IDEA Opera Grants and the new IDEA Opera Residencies, supported by the Katherine S. and Axel G. Rosin Fund of The Scherman Foundation, are designed to increase the depth and breadth of new works from creators of color. The programs join other grant programs that encourage the expansion of the American opera repertoire. Since the inception of its granting programs, OPERA America has awarded over $20 million to the opera field to support the work of opera creators, companies, and administrators.

More information about OPERA America’s grant programs is available at operaamerica.org/Grants.


Ligeia Mare, a sci-fi electronic fantasy opera, tells the story of Cosmo, an awkward adolescent with a special gift for astral projection while dreaming. After discovering this power, Cosmo’s jazz pianist father, Cassius, falls ill with brain cancer. Due to his ailment, Cassius begins to proclaim that he is actually from Saturn but had forgotten his origins after a crash landing decades earlier. Cosmo’s mother, Joyce, desperately fights to keep her family afloat while dealing with Cassius’ illness and Cosmo’s overactive imagination. Cosmo believes the key to saving his father’s life is somewhere in the stars — he just has to dream his way through them to find it. As Cosmo travels the galaxy night after night, the real world and the dream world begin to blur together.

Damon Davis, composer and librettist

Damon Davis is an award-winning, post-disciplinary artist who works and resides in St. Louis. In a practice that is part therapy, part social commentary, his work spans a spectrum of creative mediums to tell stories exploring how identity is informed by power and mythology. Davis seeks to give voice to the powerless and combat systems of oppression, focusing not only on pain but also on the joy of the Black experience.

Davis is co-director of the critically acclaimed film Whose Streets?, documenting the Ferguson Uprising. He is a 2016 Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab Fellow, 2017 TED Fellow, 2017 Root 100 honoree, and 2020 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. Davis is the founder and creative director of FarFetched, a St. Louis-based music label and artist collective. His work is featured in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Chhlong Tonle is a three-part monodrama for soprano and piano. Taking its inspiration from the Cambodian expression for one’s first childbirth, Chhlong Tonle explores the true stories of three women from different cultures who are vulnerable because of social expectations. The first story is based on the forbidden documentary The Burden of Virginity by Uzbek activist Umida Akhmedova, which uncovers the life of a young woman who was exiled by her husband’s family for not producing enough blood on the marital bedsheet after consummating their marriage. The second story is about the tragedy of a woman who sacrifices her musical career for the success of her pianist husband and then loses herself in the roles of mother and wife during the onset of postpartum depression. The third story depicts a young woman from the Mekong suddenly forced to “cross the river” before her midwife has arrived.

Liliya Ugay, composer

Described as both “assertive and steely,” and “lovely, subtle writing” (Wall Street Journal), Liliya Ugay’s music has been performed in many countries around the globe, and her compositions have been featured at the Aspen, Norfolk, Cultivate, American Composers, Chelsea, New York Electroacoustic Music, June in Buffalo, and Darmstadt New Music festivals, as well as at the 52nd Venice Biennale. Ugay has collaborated with Washington National Opera, American Lyric Theater, Nashville Symphony, Albany Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, New England Philharmonic, Yale Philharmonia, Raleigh Civic Symphony, Norfolk Festival Choir, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Molinari Quartet, and Paul Neubauer, among others. A Rome Prize finalist, she has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, Yale University, and the Woodruff Foundation. Originally from Uzbekistan, Ugay studied at the Yale School of Music and is currently an assistant professor of composition at the Florida State University.

Sokunthary Svay, librettist

Sokunthary Svay was born in a refugee camp in Thailand shortly after her parents fled Cambodia following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Her family was sponsored to come to the United States and resettled in the Bronx, where Svay grew up. A founding member of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association (CALAA), she has received fellowships from the American Opera Project, Poets House, Willow Books, and CUNY, as well as commissions from Washington National Opera, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and ISSUE Project Room. In addition to publishing a poetry collection, Apsara in New York (Willow Books, 2017), Svay has had her writing anthologized and performed by actors and singers. Svay’s first opera, Woman of Letters, set by composer Liliya Ugay, received its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in January 2020 as part of the American Opera Initiative. She teaches English at Queens College, CUNY. 


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