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Press Released: 07 Aug 2023

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

Supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation

OPERA America is pleased to announce grants to five opera companies to support the commissioning of new works by women composers as part of OPERA America’s Opera Grants for Women Composers program. The program, supported generously by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, promotes the development of new works by women and raises the visibility of women writing for the operatic medium.

Grants totaling $100,000 were awarded to:

  • Beth Morrison Projects (Brooklyn, NY) for Sensorium Ex, composed by Paola Prestini (libretto by Brenda Shaughnessy)
  • Houston Grand Opera (Houston, TX) for The Big Swim, composed by Meilina Tsui (libretto by Melisa Tien)
  • LA Opera (Los Angeles, CA) for The Tower of Babel, composed and written by Carla Lucero
  • Pittsburgh Opera (Pittsburgh, PA) for Time to Act (working title), composed by Laura Kaminsky (libretto by Crystal Manich)
  • White Snake Projects (Brookline, MA) for Splitting Sand, composed by Jing Jing Luo (libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs); and Is This America? The Story of Fannie Lou Hamer, composed by Mary Watkins (libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs)

See below for descriptions of the projects and composer biographies.

The five opera company recipients were selected from a pool of eligible OPERA America Professional Company Members, who 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 Susan Ashbaker, director of Westminster Opera Theatre, Westminster Choir College; Stephanie Fleischmann, librettist and recipient of OPERA America’s 2022 Campbell Opera Librettist Prize; and Geovonday Jones, professor and head of performance, Southern Illinois University.

The Opera Grants for Women Composers program enriches the art form by supporting the work of women who bring their creative perspectives, experiences, and stories to stages across the country. It 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 $1.8 million to composers and companies since its creation in 2014 and has helped propel the careers of countless women creators in the opera field. Of the six composers supported by 2023 Commissioning Grants, five were formerly supported by Discovery Grants.  

“We are grateful to the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation for its continued dedication to advancing women in opera,” commented Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of OPERA America. “We look forward to seeing these newly commissioned productions by women composers come to stages across the nation.”

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 in the mid-1980s, 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 Recipients

Beth Morrison Projects 

Sensorium Ex
Paola Prestini, composer
Brenda Shaughnessy, librettist

Sensorium is a multi-modal arts project exploring fundamental questions of what it means to have a voice. The project is centered around the opera, Sensorium Ex, a multi-sensory narrative woven together at the intersections of disability and artificial intelligence. Sensorium Ex is committed to developing new methods for collaboration and impact between the arts, sciences, and the lived experiences of individuals and communities.

The Sensorium Ex opera, commissioned by VisionIntoArt and Beth Morrison Projects, and supported by the Ford Foundation, is centered on the nature of voice beyond language and how to creatively explore and express forms of non-speaking or non-typical patterns of speech and voice in opera. Artificial intelligence plays a role in expanding the possibilities for voice and expression in this dystopian tale.

Paola Prestini, composer
Composer Paola Prestini has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, and scientists on large-scale multimedia works that chart her interest in themes ranging from the cosmos to the environment. She has created, written, and produced projects such as the world’s largest and first communal VR opera, The Hubble Cantata, and the eco-documentary The Colorado. Her opera Sensorium Ex dives into community impact and AI, bridging her love of collaboration with system building. Her work has been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Minnesota Opera, LA Opera, San Diego Opera, Bellas Artes, and at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Italy. She has been a resident at MASS MoCA, the Park Avenue Armory, the American Academy in Rome, and Sundance. Prestini is a co-founder of VisionIntoArt, a nonprofit new music and interdisciplinary arts production company in New York City, and is the co-founder and artistic director of the nonprofit music organization National Sawdust.

Paola Prestini's opera Old Man and the Sea (with a libretto by Royce Vavrek) was produced by Beth Morrison Projects with support from a 2022 Commissioning Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

Houston Grand Opera

The Big Swim
Meilina Tsui, composer
Melisa Tien, librettist

Houston Grand Opera will present the world premiere of the chamber opera The Big Swim, created by composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, in February 2024. The new work — which shares the story of the Jade Emperor and the Great Race between the 12 animals that became the symbols of the Lunar New Year calendar — will be presented at the Asia Society Texas Center as part of its Lunar New Year festivities.

Meilina Tsui, composer
Meilina Tsui is an award-winning composer, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, advocate for youth artistic development, and educator based in Orlando, Florida. Born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and raised in Hong Kong, Tsui is a composer whose works uniquely combine elements of Central Asian and East Asian cultures. She is the first Chinese classical composer of Dungan ethnicity whose music has been gaining international recognition, garnering many accolades, including a 2022 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award, 2021 ProQuest Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation Award from the University of Michigan, 2018 I Creation/Mivos Quartet Prize for Chinese composers worldwide, and 2018 Intimacy of Creativity Audience Vote Prize. Her music has been commissioned, performed, and read across Asia, Europe, North America, and the Middle East by leading organizations and artists, such as Houston Grand Opera, Aspen Music Festival, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and many others.

LA Opera

The Tower of Babel
Carla Lucero, composer and librettist

LA Opera will present the newly commissioned opera The Tower of Babel by Carla Lucero in the 2024–2025 season as part of its multi-year Community Opera at the Cathedral initiative. This annual beloved program will bring together professional musicians and community members to present a full production free for the public. Led by LA Opera Music Director James Conlon, The Tower of Babel will be the first multi-lingual opera in the company’s commissioning history. The libretto aims to reflect the diversity of the region and will include English, Spanish, Mandarin, French, and other languages to be determined, in equal parts. The opera will focus on themes of overcoming differences and communal collaboration. From the inaugural production of Noah’s Flood in 2007 to the most recent commission of Moses in 2023, powerful stories have brought thousands of community members to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to enjoy the collective art form of opera at no cost.

Carla Lucero, composer
Originally from Los Angeles, Carla Lucero was the only woman in her graduating class at CalArts, where she studied with Rand Steiger, Morton Subotnick, and Leonard Rosenman. She later moved to San Francisco, where her first opera, Wuornos, premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, winning “10 Best of Stage” from Advocate and Out magazines. Excerpts from Wuornos were performed and recorded at Carnegie Hall by pianist Anna Kislitsyna in June 2022. Her other operatic works include Juana, which premiered at UCLA in 2019, and Las Tres Mujeres de Jerusalén (The Three Women of Jerusalem), which premiered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in March 2022. In 2024, Lucero’s opera touch will premiere with Opera Birmingham. Her works have been performed internationally by orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Canada, Germany, Spain, and Italy.

Carla Lucero's opera Touch (with a libretto by Marianna Mott Newirth) was produced by Opera Birmingham with support from a 2022 Commissioning Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

Pittsburgh Opera 

Time to Act (working title)
Laura Kaminsky, composer
Crystal Manich, librettist

Pittsburgh Opera’s world premiere of Time to Act (working title), in consortium with Opera Santa Barbara and Intermountain Opera Bozeman, brings to the stage the highly charged topic of gun violence in America. Composer Laura Kaminsky, librettist Crystal Manich, and dramaturg/stage director Amy Hutchison explore the long-term emotional impact that this violence has on our youth. A group of high school students prepares for a production of Sophocles’ Antigone, joined by a new student, Alona, who comes with a formidable secret. Time to Act demonstrates how the arts can uplift and unify victims of trauma, empowering them to act, while giving voice to the young citizens who have been most impacted by this ongoing cycle of devastating violence.

Laura Kaminsky, composer
Possessing “an ear for the new and interesting” (The New York Times), Laura Kaminsky frequently addresses social and political issues in her work. As One (co-librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed) is one of the most produced contemporary operas since its 2014 premiere at BAM, with close to 60 productions to date across the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, and Australia. Her other operas include Some Light Emerges, Today It Rains, Hometown to the World, and Finding Wright. She is co-librettist (with novelist Lisa Moore) and composer of February, which will receive its premiere in Newfoundland in October 2023. With librettist David Cote she is creating Lucidity for On Site Opera and, with poet Elaine Sexton, a chamber opera in poems, The Post Office, for Queen City Opera (2025). Kaminsky is head of composition in the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College/SUNY and a composer-mentor for the Juilliard School of Music’s Blueprint Fellowship program.

Laura Kaminsky previously received a 2014 Discovery Grant for As One. Her opera Today It Rains (with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed) was produced by Opera Parallèle with support from a 2017 Commissioning Grant, and her work Some Light Emerges (with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kim Reed) was produced by Houston Grand Opera with support from a 2016 Commissioning Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

White Snake Projects

Splitting Sand
Jing Jing Luo, composer
Cerise Lim Jacobs, librettist

Splitting Sand, composed by Jing Jing Luo and commissioned and produced by White Snake Projects, is a work of resistance. Through music theater, dance, puppetry, and robotics, it calls out the repression, cruelty, and suppression of free speech, artistic innovation, and intellectual freedom during the Cultural Revolution in China, a genocide of unimaginable dimensions. It is a little-known fact that the number of people killed during this purge exceeds that of the Holocaust and other horrific genocides. The work integrates historical reality, memory, and fantasy as it retraces a dissenter’s arrest, imprisonment, torture, public humiliation, and brainwashing as they are broken, physically and mentally. Yet, there is resistance, the resistance of art and music, which is an everlasting legacy that cannot be recanted away.

Jing Jing Luo, composer
Jing Jing Luo, a native of Beijing, China, is a prolific composer and performer whose musical language connects East and West. She was described as one of “the first generation of Chinese avant-garde composers … whose music muses over the remote past and then depicts the results of her wealth of reflection” by the music critic from the Hong Kong Arts Festival. She has received awards from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others, and was named composer-in-residence with the Princeton Symphony in 2016. The workshop of her first electro-acoustic monodrama, Splitting Sand, was performed to great success when it was produced by the American Opera Project in Brooklyn in 2016. Luo has taught and lectured on music composition at many institutions, including Oberlin Conservatory, Central Conservatory of Beijing, Shanghai Conservatory, Sichuan Conservatory, Brooklyn Conservatory, University of Las Vegas, University of Western Michigan, Stanford University, and Columbia University.

Jing Jing Luo previously received a 2015 Discovery Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.

White Snake Projects

Is This America? The Story of Fannie Lou Hamer
Mary Watkins, composer
Cerise Lim Jacobs, librettist

Is This America?, composed by Mary Watkins and commissioned and produced by White Snake Projects, tells the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, the great Mississippi activist who galvanized the registration of Black voters in her home state despite overwhelming odds, including death threats, beatings, and rejection by her own constituency. The title of the work is taken from the iconic speech Hamer made before the Democratic National Convention in which she petitioned the Convention to give her newly formed political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), seats at the Convention and to recognize MFDP as the legitimate representative of the people of Mississippi.

Mary Watkins, composer
An eclectic composer who works comfortably in both the classical and jazz traditions, Mary Watkins draws no firm boundaries around any one style. Elements of blues, gospel, country/folk, and pop slip easily into her work, and her versatility as a composer, arranger, pianist, and producer is reflected in the pieces she has composed for symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, film, and the theater. Notable among Watkins’ many compositions are the jazz score for the musical play Lady Lester Sings the Blues, based on the life of Lester Young, and The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, a jazz adaptation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet. Most recently, she was commissioned to write a symphonic work, The Initiate, for The National Women’s Music Festival, and she completed the opera, Emmett Till, which premiered in 2022. Her music has been performed by the Berkeley Symphony Chamber Orchestra, Richmond (VA) Chamber Orchestra, Rohnert Park Symphony, Palo Alto Philharmonic, and The Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.

Mary Watkins previously received a 2020 Discovery Grant from the Opera Grants for Women Composers program.


For more information on OPERA America, visit About Us.

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