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Press Released: 10 Apr 2023

OPERA America Awards $100,000 in Discovery Grants to Eight Women Composers

Generously supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation

OPERA America is pleased to announce the eight composers selected as recipients of the 2023 Discovery Grants from its Opera Grants for Women Composers program, made possible with the generosity of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The program promotes the work of women composers in opera and raises their visibility across the field. Grants totaling $100,000 will support the development of new opera and music-theater works by these exceptional composers.

The 2023 recipients are:

  • Juhi Bansal, for Star Singer
  • Annie Gosfield, for Peggy and Jackson
  • Jennifer Jolley, for Spacewalk
  • Dana Kaufman, for Sally Ride
  • Tamar Muskal, for Nadia
  • Shara Nova, for The Subnivean Zone: Under the Snow
  • Bernadette Speach, for The Little Rock Nine
  • Jennifer Williams, for Dis/Inform

See below for additional information about the composers and their works.

In addition to cash awards, OPERA America provides travel support for all Discovery 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 57 highly qualified composers by a panel of industry leaders consisting of Pamela Baskin-Watson, composer/librettist and 2022 IDEA Opera Grant recipient; Jose Maria Condemi, stage director; Kip Cranna, dramaturg emeritus, San Francisco Opera; Laura Jobin-Acosta, composer and 2021 IDEA Opera Resident Artist; Kristin Kuster, composer and 2014 Discovery Grant recipient; and Darren K. Woods, artistic director, Seagle Festival.

“Discovery Grants are part of a concerted effort to increase gender parity in the opera field,” stated Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America. “We are proud to recognize these eight composers who will enrich the field with their unique creative voices. We are grateful 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 Opera Grants for Women Composers, Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors, 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 over $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 Artists & Works

Juhi Bansal, composer
Star Singer
Neil Aitken, librettist

Juhi Bansal’s music weaves together themes celebrating musical and cultural diversity, nature and the environment, and strong female role models. Her compositions draw on Hindustani music, spectralism, progressive metal, musical theater, and choral traditions to create deeply expressive, evocative sound worlds. As an Indian composer raised in Hong Kong, she creates work that intertwines both traditions with gestures of Western classical music. Bansal is frequently commissioned to write music across dramatic, orchestral, vocal, chamber, and multimedia genres. Recent projects include Love, Loss, and Exile, an extended song cycle on poetry by Afghan women; Waves of Change, a digital experience on womanhood, identity, and culture clash inspired by the story of the Bangladesh Girls Surf Club; and Songs from the Deep, a work for chamber orchestra inspired by the songs of humpback whales as heard through the noise of the ocean.

About Star Singer
Star Singer explores the way women’s stories and history are preserved and passed on, as well as what happens when the chain is broken and traditions and language are lost. With music as the language of memory, the opera draws on mythologies from various cultures to present a stylized allegory for how we understand history and truth, how we pass them on, and their inevitable loss in the passage of time.

Star Singer takes place in a fantastical world where stars are burning out one by one, fading into a darkness held back only by the voice of the last star singer, the mother of the opera’s heroine, Mina. When Mina’s mother dies unexpectedly, the stars begin to fall dark. Left only with the fragmented memory of her mother’s song, taught to her in infancy, Mina sets out on a journey to relight the sky. As she moves through the realms of memory, anger, isolation, and death, Mina unknowingly walks in her mother’s footsteps, learning about truth, history, and memory; the irreplaceable loss of knowledge; the value of stories; and the interweaving journeys of mothers and daughters.

Annie Gosfield, composer
Peggy and Jackson
Christopher Merrill, librettist

Based in New York City, Annie Gosfield has composed site-specific music for factories; researched jammed radio signals; led a band driven by samples of machines; and developed orchestral pieces for a residency with the League of American Orchestras. In 2017, she worked with Yuval Sharon, Sigourney Weaver, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the multi-site opera War of the Worlds, which incorporated three air raid sirens that were repurposed into public speakers to broadcast a free, live performance from Disney Hall to the streets of LA. Her 2022 song cycle The Secret Life of Planets, for soprano, bass, orchestra, and electronics, was included in the LA Times’ “Best of 2022” list. Gosfield has received awards from the Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy in Rome, the American Academy in Berlin, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and many others. Her music is featured on four portrait albums on the Tzadik label.

About Peggy and Jackson
Peggy and Jackson is about the visionary collector and art patron Peggy Guggenheim and the iconic painter Jackson Pollock, and how their relationship changed the course of modern art. In 1943, Peggy commissioned Jackson to create Mural, an enormous painting for the entrance of her building in New York City. It was a pivotal work for Pollock, as well as for the art world. When Guggenheim commissioned Mural, Pollock was beginning to challenge traditional notions of painting, experimenting with real and mythical imagery, dynamic gestures, and new techniques.

This one-act opera will explore these two very operatic characters and their unique patron/artist relationship, drawing inspiration not only from the dynamic between Peggy and Jackson, but also from the musicality, rhythm, and movement in Pollock’s work. Their spirited conversation, which takes place in the afterlife, will include how Peggy “freed” Jackson from working at her uncle’s museum; Jackson’s innovative painting techniques and what inspired them; and how the iconic Mural traveled from Peggy’s New York City home to Iowa, where it was almost destroyed in the great flood of 2008. The painting is now exhibited at the University of Iowa Art Museum, in the venue in which the opera will be performed.

Jennifer Jolley, composer
Hai-Ting Chinn, librettist

Jennifer Jolley is a composer, conductor, and professor. Her work is founded on the conviction that the pleasures and excesses of music have the unique potential to engage political and provocative subjects. Addressing a range of topics such as climate change, the #MeToo movement, feminist history, and the abuses of the Putin regime, she strives to write pieces that are equally enjoyable and meaningful. Her works have been performed by ensembles worldwide. She has received commissions from the NEA, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Quince Ensemble, and many others. Jolley received degrees from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. She is now an assistant professor of music theory and composition in the Department of Music, Multimedia, Theater, and Dance at Lehman College and has been a composition faculty member at Interlochen Arts Camp since 2015.

About Spacewalk
Spacewalk is an opera in seven vignettes, one for each hour of the first all-female spacewalk, which took place in October 2019 outside the International Space Station. Following the format of the seven-hour public broadcast from NASA, the work intersperses the real-time radio conversations of astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir with Mission Control CapCom Stephanie Wilson talking during their spacewalk, with scenes of other female astronauts “in studio” explaining the difficulties, dangers, and delights of their assignment. These exchanges between actors and forebears provide crucial technical insight into the unfolding drama to the audience and heighten their contemplation and emotive response.

Dana Kaufman, composer
Sally Ride
Aiden Feltkamp, librettist

Dana Kaufman’s work centers disruptive opera, accessible/inclusive stages, and the intersection of pop culture and classical music. Hailed as “whirlwind” (Gramophone), “ingeniously derived” (Sequenza21), and “dramatic” and “powerfully funny” (Observer), Kaufman has had her music heard throughout North America and Europe, as well as in South Korea. Her works have been featured at Carnegie Hall, New York Opera Fest, Contemporary Music Center of Milan, South Korea’s National Gugak Center, Hartford Opera Theater, Ravinia Festival, and Opera on Tap. The works have been commissioned by Grammy-winning pianist Nadia Shpachenko, Louisville Ballet, and others. In 2022, Adhyâropa Records released Emily & Sue, Kaufman’s new a cappella pop opera.

A Fulbright research fellow, four-time American Prize honoree, and frequent speaker on gender diversity in composition, Kaufman has lectured at the LA Opera, Women Composers Festival of Hartford, and Music by Women Festival. She is an assistant professor in music composition at University of California, Riverside.

About Sally Ride
Sally Ride follows the story of Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman and first LGBTQ+ astronaut to go to space, as she pursues her passions for science, exploration, and genuine human connection. Act I follows young Sally as she meets her future life partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, and decides if she would like to pursue tennis or science as a career. She begins a degree in physics and while at Stanford, an article in the school newspaper catches her eye: NASA is finally recruiting women. Five years later, she’s in the space shuttle Challenger as it lifts off into space. She looks out over the Earth, marveling at its fragility and beauty. Act II reveals a married Sally worn out by the constant public attention. Feeling out of sorts, she takes a vacation to visit Tam. While there, they realize they have romantic feelings for each other. They discuss the obstacles to their relationship, including Sally’s current marriage, but ultimately decide to be together. Sally finds herself at a crossroads when the Challenger tragically crashes, putting off future flights into space. Sally decides to leave NASA and pursue a professorial position. Tam and Sally have now been in a long-distance relationship for four years, and Sally wants them to be together every day. Tam moves to California, and they commit to a long-term relationship. Twelve years pass; Tam and Sally are at the opening ceremony for their new company: Sally Ride Science. Sally shares her love of science with a crowd of young girls. In an epilogue, Tam carries on Sally’s legacy.

Tamar Muskal, composer
Daniel Kramer, librettist

Educated both in Israel and the United States, Tamar Muskal creates music that harmonizes the unique cultural aspects of both places. Her music is always in a counterpoint style and with great attention to details. She was mentioned in The New York Times’ “10 Best Classical Music Events of 2014” by Anthony Tommasini. Recent and future commissions include a concerto for percussionist (Steve Schick), interactive kinetic sculpture (by Daniel Rozin) and ensemble for the La Jolla SummerFest; a piece for soprano, interactive kinetic sculpture, and orchestra for the American Composers Orchestra; a solo piano piece for Benjamin Hochman; a piano trio for Ensemble Pi; and an opera with director-librettist Daniel Kramer, former artistic director of English National Opera. Muskal has received awards and grants from the Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the American Composers Forum/Jerome Fund, Meet the Composer, and ASCAP. She received the Theodore Front Prize from IAWM for The Yellow Wind. While at Yale, Muskal received four awards for her compositions and achievements.

About Nadia
Set during post-World War III, President Abraham Canaan blasts off to Mars with his AI co-pilot robot, Siri. Their mission: to secure new resources for what little life is left on Earth. Nadia — a middle-aged, single Black woman who is a history teacher — drinks-sinks herself into the Mariana Trench. There, an Angel Fish appears and states, “For unto her, a child is born — walk nine months on rock bottom. Do not try to climb out too quickly.” Abraham and Siri grow awkwardly closer in space — but troubles develop as Siri’s battery runs low. Month three: Nadia has walked across the Pacific Desert to arrive in what was once Hollywood; she experiences the sickness of pregnancy and the sickness of the old American Dream — fallen stars all about. Abraham short-circuits Siri in trying to repair her, and Siri turns on Abe’s greed. Month six: Nadia arrives at the Mississippi Swamp, river of death, drain of the American Dream. What are her dreams now, what dreams — nightmares? — might her child know, or never know? Back in space, Abe thinks he has repaired Siri, but Siri has a surprise for Abe: time to end his mission to pillage Mars of its water; time to end Abe and thus life on Earth without fresh water. Month 9: Nadia arrives at the dead salty sea of New York — once home. Siri explodes the mission to Mars, and Nadia gives birth to a stillborn child. Humanity ends on Earth; and the Earth transfigures into a beautiful new forest of alien plant and animal life.

Shara Nova, composer/librettist
The Subnivean Zone: Under the Snow

Shara Nova has released five albums under the moniker My Brightest Diamond and has composed works for The Crossing, yMusic, Brooklyn Rider, Conspirare, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Roomful of Teeth, and many community choirs, as well as Aarhus Symfoni, North Carolina Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, and the BBC Concert Orchestra. In 2019, she composed a work for the Cincinnati Opera, Look Around, featuring 600 musicians. Her baroque chamber p’opera You Us We All premiered in 2015 at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. In 2021, Nova created a four-screen film titled Ocean Body, which premiered at The Momentary, shortly followed by the premiere of Infinite Movement, her baroque masque for 100 musicians, set to text by artist Matthew Ritchie, at the University of North Texas in November 2021. Nova composed The Blue Hour for the string orchestra A Far Cry, which was released on Nonesuch Records in the fall of 2022.

About The Subnivean Zone: Under the Snow
The Child (a non-binary character), having been on the computer for hours, is temporarily ejected from home, sent outside as punishment by their parents to play in the snow. The Child angrily stomps around the yard, but then sees a rabbit running away. Magically shrinking, The Child enters the world of snow tunnels, twisting tree roots, fungi networks, and hibernal animals.

Entering the subnivean zone, The Child meets a Snake looking for water, and then witnesses a love song and the tragedy of two Voles interrupted by a hungry Weasel who in turn falls prey to a Fox. Falling over tree roots, The Child notices the impact of human harm, and then seeing the Rabbit again, chases her to her nest where she is feeding her young. The Rabbit leaves the nest quickly only to be hunted by a Hawk. The Child sacrifices themselves to save the Mother Rabbit and is carried into the sky. A Mob of Birds witnesses The Child’s sacrifice and swarms the Hawk, who then drops The Child in the chaos. Growing magically to human size once again, The Child rushes home, and a blinding light floods through the opening back door. 

Bernadette Speach, composer
The Little Rock Nine
Thulani Davis, librettist

Although trained in the classical idiom, Bernadette Speach is equally rooted in jazz, and in the latter vein includes room for aleatory elements in her compositions, ranging from solo and chamber to choral and orchestral. Her latest project, the opera Little Rock Nine — a collaboration with librettist Thulani Davis — tells the story of nine students, ages 14 and 15, who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957–1958. Little Rock Nine reunites Speach and Davis, whose collaboration began in 1987 with Telepathy: Poetry/Music Suite. Speach’s post-minimalistic jazz punctuates Davis’ considerable literary depth. As a presenter, Speach has commissioned, premiered, and presented a host of contemporary composers of multi-genre idioms. As a seasoned improviser, she has performed with her husband, guitarist/composer Jeffrey Schanzer, and many others. As a pianist, she is regarded for her interpretations of the keyboard repertoire of John Cage, including In a Landscape and pieces for toy piano.

About The Little Rock Nine
The Little Rock Nine tells the story of nine students, ages 14 and 15, who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957–1958. The world watched this episode of social change at that time because these young people were the first to test whether it was possible for Americans to end school segregation as ordered by the 1954 Supreme Court ruling known as Brown v. Board of Education. We know now how long a fight that has been, but it would not have begun for years had these nine teens not started and persisted through the terror of the first year, during which they were beaten, set on fire, taunted, and threatened with death. Their parents lost jobs and were threatened, as well. The opera allows us a peek into the internal lives of the people involved during a time when, to keep the struggle going, they never told anyone what they suffered. Neither children nor parents confided in each other. Using memoirs and interviews from years later, the libretto tells us what was not told then. Eight of the nine survive today.

Jennifer Williams, composer/librettist

Jennifer Williams is a hybrid artist. She tells stories by blending music and theater with diverse artistic forms, including immersive performance, site-specific installation art, digital media, interactive technologies, and devised performance. Her devised opera Grounds won grants from Brooklyn Arts Council and New York State Council on the Arts. The Foundation for Contemporary Arts awarded Williams an e-grant in 2020. Her professional affiliations include the Nederlandse Reisopera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Komische Oper, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, Beth Morrison Projects, and Center for Contemporary Opera. The U.S. Department of State recently appointed her an Arts Envoy. In 2022, Harvard University invited her to teach a workshop on her creative practice. A Fulbright scholar, Williams holds a Ph.D. in performing and media arts from Cornell University and an A.B. in interdisciplinary studies in humanities from the University of Chicago.

About Dis/Inform
Dis/Inform is a devised opera about the global disinformation crisis told through an intimate, human perspective. Devised music is a collaborative compositional process in which an ensemble of devising artists generates a performance through structured improvisation. A devised opera has a plot line, dramatic arc, and characters, which are generated collaboratively within a determined structure. This structured improvisation adds to the repertoire in a sustainable way because it is not fully improvised; the central story and musical structure remain the same; so, the premiere of Dis/Inform will differ from future performances in collaboration with each partner, but Dis/Inform retains its central story and musical structure. This grant will support a working performance to develop the story and structure.

Dis/Inform is about a fictional character who is inspired by real-life, anonymized testimonies of individuals in rural America who have been drawn into the alternate realities of disinformation. The story traces how they became alienated from their trusted outlets, the fear and isolation that drove them to alternative spheres, and how disinformation reshaped unexpected dimensions of their life.


For more information on OPERA America, visit About Us.

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