Discovery Grants Women Composers
Press Published: 04 Apr 2022

OPERA America Awards over $100,000 in Discovery Grants to Support Eight New Works by Women Composers

Generously supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation

OPERA America is pleased to announce the latest recipients of the Discovery Grants from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program. These eight composers will receive a total of $104,000 to support the development of new opera and music-theater works. The Opera Grants for Women Composers program promotes the generation of new works by women and raises their visibility across the entire field. The grants are made possible through the generosity of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. 

The 2022 recipients are:

  • Layale Chaker, for Ruinous Gods
  • Ashi Day, for Waking the Witch
  • Susan Kander, for Carry My Own Suitcase
  • Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, for Lili’u
  • Pamela Madsen, for Why Women Went West: Eleven Eleisons from East to West
  • Rachel J. Peters, for Nothing Except My Genius (working title)
  • Amber Vistein, for Dark Exhalation
  • Alyssa Weinberg, for Drift

See below for profiles of the composers and their works.

In addition to cash awards, OPERA America invites and provides travel support for all grant recipients to attend its annual Opera Conference and New Works Forum, enabling them to develop relationships with potential creative partners and producers. Grant recipients also receive mentorship on the artistic and business aspects of new work development.

Grantees were selected from an applicant pool of 48 composers by a panel of industry leaders consisting of Debra E. Evans, arts administrator, advocate, and consultant; Carla M. Lucero, composer; Kelley Rourke, librettist, translator, and dramaturg; Maria Sensi Sellner, conductor and artistic and general director, Resonance Works Pittsburgh; and Carlos J. Soto, director and designer.

 “When the Opera Grants for Women Composers launched in 2013, less than 20 percent of world premieres in America were composed by women. Nine years later, that percentage has more than doubled, with 44 percent of new American works in 2020 composed by women,” stated Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America (referencing an audit conducted by OA). “This data speaks to a field-wide desire to produce more works by women composers and underlines the value of the Opera Grants for Women Composers program. We are proud to continue this work with the generous support of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.”

OPERA America is committed to increasing gender parity across the field through multiple initiatives. These include the Opera Grants for Women Composers program’s Discovery Grants and Commissioning Grants, Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors (generously supported by the Marineau Family Foundation), Mentorship Program for Women Administrators, and 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 & Their Works

Layale Chaker, composer
Ruinous Gods
Lisa Schlesinger, librettist

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, 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 StradStrings 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.

About Ruinous Gods: Seven Suites for Sleeping Children:
The opera centers on seven displaced children who have uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation syndrome, a rare trauma response to the state of living in the limbo of displacement. Until recently, uppgivenhetssyndrom was only diagnosed in Sweden, but it is now evident in several refugee camps around the world. The sufferer, once vibrant and alive, falls into a nonresponsive sleep. One survivor describes it as “being trapped in a glass box.” This opera uses elements from myths and fairy tales to create 21st-century fantasia on “sleeping beauties.” The performance is based on documented testimonies from survivors and families of those afflicted by the syndrome and seeks to transform trauma into hope. In resistance to the many dystopian narratives in popular culture, this opera creates space for imagination and agency.

Ashi Day, composer/librettist
Waking the Witch

Ashi Day’s vocally driven works explore the intersections between music and theater; strategic humor and absurdity; the interplay between the experiences of performers, audiences, and the canon; and animal songs. Her two short mono-operas, For Whom the Dog Tolls and The Green Child, intentionally provide sopranos with the rare opportunity to be playful and victorious for most of the plot, while subtly exploring who is allowed to move freely through the world. Her art songs, choral pieces, and theatrical works have been commissioned or performed by Artifice, Juventas New Music Ensemble, Calliope’s Call, Whistling Hens, N.E.O. Voice Festival, American University, Washington State University, Denison TUTTI, StageFree, District New Music Coalition, and more. She is a 2021 DC Arts and Humanities Fellow. A former elementary school music teacher, Day now manages several education programs for the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera.

About Waking the Witch:
This one-act opera for solo countertenor or mezzo-soprano and Pierrot ensemble explores the danger of mixing authority with righteous thinking. The work is in development by composer/librettist Ashi Day with countertenor Min Sang Kim, director Lee Cromwell, and Pierrot ensemble Balance Campaign. You, the audience, find yourself an accused witch set before a Witchfinder from early modern Europe who is convinced you’ve joined a diabolical conspiracy against all that is godly. Through a series of escalating questions — about your neighbors’ misfortunes, your strange behavior, an odd mark on your skin — the Witchfinder slowly works to extract your confession and conspirators. He interrogates you “without torture,” merely asking you to walk about, this night and maybe more, until he hears the truth he’s already determined. Sleep-deprived, reality fracturing, it starts to seem like this might go on for actual centuries. Do you confess? Resist? Can you keep walking?

Susan Kander, composer/co-librettist
Carry My Own Suitcase
Roberta Gumbel, co-librettist

Susan Kander’s music has been heard across the U.S., Europe, China, Australia, and South Africa. Her most recent opera, dwb (driving while black), written with librettist/soprano Roberta Gumbel, missed its New York premiere by five days in March 2020. Baruch Performing Arts Center and Opera Omaha subsequently premiered a courageously produced Four/Ten Media video of the opera. The virtual production was described by The Washington Post as “searing … sung drama.” Opera News selected the 2021 Albany Records original cast release as a Critics’ Choice, calling it “deeply affecting and innovatively conceived … transcendent.” Kander’s 2016 MSR chamber music CD Hermestänze was hailed as “raptly serene ... eloquent ...  wrenchingly powerful” (Gramophone) and “lovely and evanescent” (San Francisco Chronicle). Her commissioners include Minnesota Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Columbus, and the National Symphony Orchestra. Her chamber music can be heard on the MSR, Navona, and Loose Cans labels. Her publisher is Subito Music. Kander is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony.

About Carry My Own Suitcase:
Roger, 25, has been cheerfully talking about moving into his own place for several years. He wants to be like his big brother, to see the world, be independent. To watch SpongeBob SquarePants and eat pizza with olives every night. But Roger has profound autism. A speaking actor and a dancer simultaneously portray Roger, and together they inhabit his unique world of sound and motion in all its exorbitance and minutia. The boundaries of language are porous as musicians “play” small roles. The past — funny, sad, frightening, dear — won’t stay put. One night, the move toward that vague but longed-for independence begins, off schedule but crystal clear, when a pleasant evening at home goes radically off the rails. Roger and his family, together, must now step through the next door.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, composer and librettist
Lili’u

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a Kanaka Maoli musician dedicated to the arts of our time. A “leading composer-performer” (The New York Times), Lanzilotti creates “conceptually potent” work that is characterized by explorations of timbre and an interest in translating everyday sounds to concert instruments using nontraditional techniques. Her musical voice is grounded in experimental practices, influenced by her work with the Wandelweiser collective of musicians and artists as well as her own explorations into radical Indigenous contemporaneity. Cities & Health wrote of her work: “Lanzilotti’s score brings us together across the world in remembrance, through the commitment of shared sonic gestures.” Her works have been performed at international festivals such as Ars Electronica (Austria), Thailand International Composition Festival, and Dots+Loops — Australia's post-genre music and arts series. Lanzilotti is currently a lecturer in both composition and viola at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.

About Liliʻu:
Set in 1895, when Queen Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned for almost a year in Iolani Palace for her alleged knowledge of an attempt to take back the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Liliʻu tells the story of the queen’s life at a time of great upheaval. Denied visitors except for one female companion, Liliʻuokalani depended on secret messages and news that would come to her as wrapping for flowers. She used her voice to encode hope and seeds of cultural renewal in her writings and compositions. Liliʻuokalani’s advocacy for the revival of Hawaiian music and culture is her greatest legacy, as seen through her various acts of cultural preservation and through her voice as a composer — a spark of hope in the darkness. This OPERA America Discovery Grant will provide the opportunity and support to document a workshop with Roomful of Teeth, the voices of the chorus.

Pamela Madsen, composer/librettist
Why Women Went West: Eleven Eleisons from East to West
Quintan Ana Wikswo, librettist/video artist

Pamela Madsen is a composer, performer, theorist, and curator of new music whose works have been commissioned and premiered worldwide. From massive landscape-inspired projects and intimate chamber music creations to immersive deep-listening works and multimedia opera collaborations, her work focuses on image, music, text, and the environment. Madsen was selected as an Alpert Award Panelist and a Creative Capital artist “on the radar” and has received awards from National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Meet the Composer, and the American-Scandinavian Foundation. She has held fellowships with MacDowell, UCross, the Women’s International Studies Center in Santa Fe, and the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She is a frequent guest lecturer and composer-performer-improviser at festivals and universities. She is director of the Annual New Music Festival at Cal State Fullerton, where she is professor of music composition. Madsen holds a Ph.D. in music composition from UCSD and a Deep Listening Certificate with Pauline Oliveros, and she performed post-doctoral research at IRCAM, Paris.

About Why Women Went West: Eleven Eleisons from East to West:
This multimedia chamber opera explores controversies over human rights, water wars, and early 20th-century feminist artist communities through the life of Mary Hunter Austin — a writer, feminist, conservationist, and defender of Native American and Spanish American rights. Austin’s quest, trauma, and journey uncover dark mysticism in the American Southwest. Resonating with concerns over marginalization of Indigenous cultures, desecration of women, nature, and escape from conventions through artistic agency, this work reveals ongoing trauma in woman’s quest for autonomy. Two voices — I, Mary (soprano) and Mary by Herself (recorded voice/electronics) — share the part of a sole woman protagonist’s journey west to confront and overcome challenges that have plagued her throughout her life. With a Project Award from National Endowment for the Arts, this work will be premiered by Brightwork newmusic, featuring soprano Stacey Fraser.

Rachel J. Peters, composer
Nothing Except My Genius (working title)
Kevin Thomas Townley Jr., librettist

Rachel J. Peters writes mainly operas that sound like musicals and musicals that sound like operas, including Lesson Plan (On Site Opera/Caramoor); Companionship (Fort Worth Opera); The Wild Beast of the Bungalow (Oberlin Conservatory) with Royce Vavrek; Rootabaga Country (Sarasota Opera); No Ladies in the Lady’s Book (Utah Opera), Staggerwing (Opera Kansas), and Men I’m Not Married To (Cleveland Opera Theater) with Lisa DeSpain; Everything Comes to a Head (Decameron Opera Coalition); Steve (Boston Opera Collaborative); Only Children (NYU Tisch) with Michael R. Jackson; Tiny Feats of Cowardice (NYC Fringe); and Write Left, Tomato Red, and Octopus Heart. Her concert works include Ethel Smyth Plays Golf in Limbo (Semperoper Dresden), If You Can Prove That I Should Set You Free (Albany Symphony), Fronds: The Wisdom of Fanny Fern (Walt Whitman Project). She is an alumna of the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Yaddo, Brush Creek Arts, New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio, The American Opera Project, and John Duffy Institute.

About Nothing Except My Genius:
The opera begins with a disembarking from the SS Arizona in 1882, when customs asked Oscar Wilde, hitherto unknown in America, whether he had anything to declare. “Nothing … except my genius,” he replied. Thus began a hilarious 12-month lecture tour across the United States, where Wilde created an enduring template for becoming famous for being famous. A personality first and poet later, his flair for self-promotion inspired ads, fashion, and music, and he amassed friends and foes alike. His greatest triumph, however, was in Leadville, Colorado, where he won over an audience of miners by lecturing on home decor, proving that art can bridge any divide. Riffing on Wilde’s use of persona and gender as stagecraft, opera legend Stephanie Blythe steps into his iconic patent leather pumps via her alter ego, Blythely Oratonio. Wilde quipped, “One should be a work of art or wear a work of art.” The “genderfull” Oratonio gives us both in abundance.

Amber Vistein, composer/librettist
Dark Exhalation

Amber Vistein is a composer who delves deeply into the poetics of timbre, texture, and gesture. Praised for her “conceptual acuity” and “blooming phrases,” she draws upon research in affect theory, phenomenology, and psychoacoustics to compose music filled with storied textural details, shifting temporal effects, and affectively charged atmospheres. Her style juxtaposes a visceral gestural vocabulary with evocative textural constructions, cross-cutting registers from the autonomic to the atmospheric. This highly tactile approach to composition works to unearth invisible events, networks, and histories by introducing expressive imperfections — a stutter, slip, or broken-record loop — that expose the submerged complexities of sound, the labor of its production, and its fragility. Vistein was recently commissioned by Washington National Opera to compose The Barrens in collaboration with librettist Rebecca Hart. She was a 2017–2019 composition fellow with The American Opera Project’s Composers and the Voice program. Dark Exhalation is her first full-length opera.

About Dark Exhalation:
This chamber opera for four vocalists and amplified ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and percussion) incorporates cinematic sound design and projection to create an immersive audio-visual experience. In the opera, when a massive solar storm is found hurtling toward Earth, residents of The City must confront impending catastrophe: massive power outages, communication blackout, scarcity, cold. As the storm draws ever closer, each character maps their individual struggles onto the cosmic event: A solar flare is a dead lover’s rage; the roiling plasma of the solar surface becomes the restless blood of someone suffering substance withdrawal; and a tide of dying birds, disoriented by the electromagnetic surge caused by the storm, gives physical form to a lonely young man’s broken heart. But the storm’s arrival also brings unexpected connections that illuminate the generative possibilities of fragility, the depths of kindness, and new ways forward.

Alyssa Weinberg, composer
Drift
J. Mae Barizo, librettist

Composer Alyssa Weinberg is best known for crafting visceral, communicative scores that have been lauded for their “frenetic yet cohesive musical language” (I Care if You Listen) and “heavyweight emotional dimensions” (Bachtrack). Weinberg finds collaboration deeply inspiring, and her music pulls concepts from her work with writers, dancers, and visual artists. Her music has been performed by some of the most accomplished artists and ensembles around the world, including Eighth Blackbird, Sō Percussion, yMusic, and the Aizuri Quartet, as well as the Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Weinberg received an artist diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music and her Ph.D. from Princeton University, where she currently holds the position of postgraduate research associate. Weinberg teaches at Montclair State University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

About Drift:
A story of migration and climate change, the opera explores the forces that drive families from their homes into the uncertain refuge of new lands. The main character’s memory has been damaged in a country teetering on the brink of civil war. Opening in the glacial landscape of a post-war period, Drift returns to the terminal green of the characters’ youths, as they navigate in a toxin-laden panorama of swamplands and power plants. The opera follows the characters as they navigate multiple selves that emerge into an alien and uncertain future. Touching on themes of migration, climate change, and trauma, it highlights the ability of opera to glimpse into alternate time periods and necessitates a radically new examination on the nature of memory, geography, and what it is to be human.

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