Press Published: 24 Aug 2022

OPERA America Awards $100,000 to Support Opera by Women at Seven Opera Companies

Supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation

OPERA America announces its latest support of women composers with Commissioning Grants to seven opera companies across the country through its Opera Grants for Women Composers program. A total of $100,000 was awarded toward the creation of seven new works by women who bring their creative perspectives, experiences, and stories to stages nationwide with the medium of voice and instrumental ensemble. The grants are generously supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

Grants were awarded to:

  • The American Opera Project (Brooklyn, NY) for Jade Star Hotel, composed by Stephanie Chou (libretto by Susan Kander)
  • Beth Morrison Projects (Brooklyn, NY) for Old Man and the Sea, composed by Paola Prestini (libretto by Royce Vavrek)
  • Finger Lakes Opera (Rochester, NY) for Two Corners, composed by B.E. Boykin (libretto by Jarrod Lee)
  • Long Beach Opera (Long Beach, CA) for Death, both of us dead, composed by Shelley Washington (librettist to be announced)
  • Opera Birmingham (Birmingham, AL) for Touch, composed by Carla Lucero (libretto by Marianna Mott Newirth)
  • Opera San José (San José, CA) for a work to be announced, composed by Rene Orth (libretto by Rene Orth)
  • Spoleto Festival USA (Charleston, SC) for Ruinous Gods, composed by Layale Chaker (libretto by Lisa Schlesinger)

See below for descriptions of the projects and composer biographies.

The seven opera company grantees were selected from an applicant pool of 15 eligible OPERA America Professional Company Members, which applied to receive up to 50 percent of the composer’s fee for a full production of a commissioned work, with awards of up to $50,000. The independent adjudication panel of industry experts included Nissy Aya, writer, educator, and cultural worker; Jennifer Aylmer, soprano and associate professor of voice, Carnegie Mellon University; Tiffany Chang, conductor; Sue Elliott, chief audience officer, Norman Rockwell Museum; and Dave Ragland, composer, vocalist, pianist, and conductor.

The Opera Grants for Women Composers program promotes the development of new works by women and raises the visibility of women writing for the operatic medium. The program consists of two parallel granting initiatives: Discovery Grants, awarded directly to women composers to advance the development of new work; and Commissioning Grants, awarded to opera companies for commissions by women composers. The program has distributed nearly $1.5 million to composers and companies since its creation in 2014.

OPERA America is committed to increasing gender parity across the field. In addition to Opera Grants for Women Composers, the organization offers Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors (generously supported by the Marineau Family Foundation), its Mentorship Program for Women Administrators, and its Women’s Opera Network.

OPERA America’s strategic philanthropy supports field-wide innovation with an emphasis on new work development, co-production, audience building, and increased civic practice. Since the inception of its granting programs, OPERA America has awarded $20 million to the opera field to support the work of opera creators, administrators, and companies.

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

About the Recipients

The American Opera Project

Jade Star Hotel 
Stephanie Chou, composer
Susan Kander, librettist
Based on the song cycle Comfort Girl by Stephanie Chou (2019)

Jade Star Hotel is the story of a Chinese “comfort woman,” a cruel euphemism for the women who were abducted and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in the 1930s and 40s. In 1939, 16-year-old Lian is kidnapped by Japanese soldiers from her own wedding in a rural village in Manchuria and kept at a military “comfort station” with other women. Though she survives, she is rejected by her family as a “cursed one” and relegated to the edges of society. Sixty-five years later, a letter arrives from America to the extremely modest apartment she shares with her daughter and granddaughter, causing Old Lian to finally share her story with her only family. Jade Star Hotel is a tribute to the more than 200,000 comfort women and their courage in finally telling their stories.

Stephanie Chou, composer
Stephanie Chou is a composer, saxophonist, and singer based in New York City. Her music combines classical and Chinese influences with jazz and pop harmonies and rhythms to create an entirely original, bilingual (English/Mandarin) musical world. Chou studied mathematics and music at Columbia University. In 2011, she released Prime Knot, a jazz quintet CD. 2012’s “CforG” was commissioned/choreographed by former American Ballet Theatre principal Susan Jaffe. Her 2017 album Asymptote features fresh takes on Chinese classics, including “Kangding Love Song” and a tongue-twister about “Eating Grapes.” She has performed in Taipei, Beijing, and throughout New York City at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Joe’s Pub, and more. She received a JFund award from American Composers Forum to write Jade Star Hotel, a song cycle exploring the lives of WWII “comfort women.” In 2021, Chou was a Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship finalist and received OPERA America’s New Works Featured Presentation Grant and LMCC’s Creative Engagement Grant.

Beth Morrison Projects

Old Man and the Sea
Paola Prestini, composer
Royce Vavrek, librettist

An original opera by composer Paola Prestini, librettist Royce Vavrek, and director Karmina Šilec, Old Man and the Sea is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s eponymous novella and creates a new fable about the desire to leave a legacy and the resilience of the human body and spirit. Old Man and the Sea imagines a world where a cast of six women and a 30-person choir become the guardians of the world’s culture, weaving their fables and memories into fishing nets to preserve them for future generations.

Paola Prestini, composer
Composer Paola Prestini has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, and scientists in large-scale multimedia works that chart her interest in extra-musical themes ranging from the cosmos to the environment. She has created, written, and produced large-scale projects such as the largest communal VR opera, The Hubble Cantata, and the eco-documentary currently on PBS, The Colorado. As an immigrant, many identities, cultures, and values have collided and interlocked within her, helping to create a synthesis of both unique and universal ideas that naturally manifest into music. On a more granular level, folk melody is infused into the creation of original melodic lines that are deconstructed and then supported with complex harmonies, rhythms, counterpoint, and electronic worlds. Her work incorporates improvisation, live electronics, foley, and spatial elements. It is of the moment, political, ambitious, and always curious.

Finger Lakes Opera

Two Corners
B.E. Boykin, composer
Jarrod Lee, librettist

Two Corners is a one-act opera set in rural Alabama shortly after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.  The opera will be workshopped during the 2023 summer residency of Finger Lakes Opera’s Tomita Young Artists and premiered in downtown Rochester in August 2024.

B.E. Boykin (Brittney Boykin), composer
B.E. Boykin (Brittney Boykin) first pursued her interest in music during her time at Spelman College, attending classes that inspired and challenged her musical imagination and piqued her interest in composition. After graduating with a B.A. in music, Boykin continued her studies at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, graduating with an M.M. in sacred music and receiving the R & R Young Composition Prize. Boykin has been commissioned by and collaborated with several organizations, including a number of ACDA divisions, Minnesota Opera, and the Kennedy Center. She obtained her Ph.D. from Georgia State University, with an emphasis in music education, and is currently an assistant professor of music at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Long Beach Opera 

Death, both of us dead
Shelley Washington, composer

(librettist to be announced)

Death, both of us dead is an exploration of intense obsession, as well as the nuances of attraction, desire, and fetishistic eroticism found in opera. The piece is a surrealist retelling of the true-life story of Nell Theobald — a young actress and model who spent almost two decades stalking and sending nightly flowers and cards to the opera legend Birgit Nilsson. Spanning the years 1966 to 1977, the work is set entirely within Nell Theobald’s motel room, with nightmarish-like intrusions and radical scene shifts that reflect her progressively fractured and manic mental obsessions and leave lingering enigmatic questions about the nature of attraction and desire. “Stalking” and “Obsession” are subject to a lot of generalizations and hyperbole in modern culture. Through this surrealist opera, Shelley Washington will honor Theobald’s actual life and explore the painful psychology and mental illness that propelled her harrowing life story, which ends in Theobald’s gut-wrenching death.

Shelley Washington, composer
Shelley Washington has emerged as an important and powerful voice of her generation, with an eclectic palette that draws from many varied musical spaces. Her music explores emotions and intentions, incorporating intricate rhythms to encourage layered listening through grooves, melody, and harmony. In addition, she addresses social injustices in the hope of creating a public dialogue. Her music has been performed across the United States and beyond. Recent projects include a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to arrange Julius Eastman’s Joy Boy, which premiered in spring 2019, and a new recording of a chamber version of Joy Boy for Wild Up for their album Eastman vol. 2: Stay On It. Washington is an active performer and collaborator and has performed and recorded with Wild Up, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Pieta Brown, and the 37d03d Collective. Washington is also a vocalist, saxophonist, and arranger in her Brooklyn-based band, Good Looking Friends.

Opera Birmingham

Touch
Carla Lucero, composer and co-librettist
Marianna Mott Newirth, co-librettist

Starting where The Miracle Worker ends, this opera in two acts explores the complicated relationship between Helen Keller and her mentor-companion, Anne Sullivan, whom Keller called “Teacher.” It also delves into the rarely told story of Helen’s star-crossed love affair with Peter Fagan. Touch highlights Keller’s monumental achievements as a writer, activist, and advocate for women’s suffrage, disability rights, and civil rights, while showing her deep inner life as she confronts barriers to gaining agency within her own world.


Carla Lucero previously received
a 2019 Discovery Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

Carla Lucero, composer
Carla Lucero, originally from Los Angeles, studied composition at CalArts. She later moved to San Francisco, where WUORNOS, her opera about America’s first female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, premiered in 2001 and was named to the “10 Best” by The Advocate and Out Magazine. Her second opera, Juana (co-librettist Alicia Gaspar de Alba), premiered in 2019 with Opera UCLA. Proclaimed one of LA Times’ “12 Best of Fall,” the opera was awarded OPERA America’s Discovery Grant. Juana, a Spanish-language work about Mexican icon Sor Juana, has its second production in New York City in August 2022 with dell’Arte Opera Ensemble. Lucero’s third opera, Las Tres Mujeres de Jerusalén, also in Spanish, was commissioned by LA Opera. It premiered in March 2022 and is part of “Song of LA,” LA Opera’s global entertainment during the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Opera San José

Rene Orth, composer/librettist

Opera San José continues to cultivate a worldwide digital audience with its commissioning of composer/librettist Rene Orth, who is the company’s first composer-in-residence. This work is based on an existing play and will premiere in June 2023.

Rene Orth previously received a 2016 Discovery Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

Rene Orth, composer
Rene Orth is a composer that “breaks new ground” (Opera News), writing music described as “always dramatic, reflective, rarely predictable, and often electronic” (Musical America). She recently completed her three-year tenure as composer-in-residence for Opera Philadelphia and will be the inaugural resident composer at Opera San José during the 2022–2023 season. Recent and upcoming commissions include works for Opera Philadelphia, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, bass-baritone Zachary James, Del Sol Quartet, and Orchestra 2001. Her work has been performed by a variety of opera companies and orchestras, including New World Symphony, the Juilliard Youth Symphony, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Fort Worth Opera, Washington National Opera, and Curtis Opera Theater. She has collaborated with notable artists and ensembles such as the Louisville Orchestra, Seraph Brass, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, and the Philadelphia Ballet.

Spoleto Festival USA

Ruinous Gods
Layla Chaker, composer
Lisa Schlesinger, librettist

Ruinous Gods centers on seven displaced children who have uppgivenhetssyndrom, a rare trauma response diagnosed in children at refugee camps around the world. This opera, based on survivors’ documented testimonies, resists popular dystopian narratives and creates a space for imagination and agency. Ruinous Gods will premiere at the 2024 Festival (May 24–June 9). 

Layale Chaker previously received a 2022 Discovery Grant for Ruinous Gods from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

Layale Chaker, composer
Deemed a “rising star” by BBC Music Magazine, violinist, composer, and 2020–2022 Jerome Hill Fellow Layale Chaker explores a musical world that lies at the intersection of classical contemporary music, jazz, Arabic music, and improvisation. She has collaborated with Oxford Orchestra, the New World Symphony, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Ziad Rahbani, Johnny Gandelsman, and Holland Baroque, appearing at the Lucerne Festival, the Avignon Festival, the Berlin Philharmonic, Abbaye de Royaumont, Hancher, the Stone, National Sawdust, Royal Albert Hall, and Wigmore Hall. Her debut album with her ensemble Sarafand was listed as “Top of the World” with a five-star review by Songlines, rated number two on NPR’s “10 Best Releases,” and ranked number one for several weeks on the World Charts of iTunes and Amazon Music. The album has received praise from The New York Times, The Strad, Strings Magazine, and Jazz World, among others. Chaker is the recipient of the 2019 Nadia and Lili Boulanger Prize, 2019 Diaphonique Franco-British Commission Prize, 2018 Arab Fund for Arts and Culture Grant, and 2018 Royal Academy of Music Guinness Award. She was a finalist for the 2018 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Prize.

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