116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is serving up a newly commissioned work shaken and stirred, straight up with a twist.
'Operatini,” a video celebration of an intoxicating trio of original short operas, begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, and includes the premiere of 'Emma's Misadventures in Zoomland,” as well as martini creation demonstrations.
Musical mixologists are composer and conductor Nancy Hill Cobb, librettist Melinda Boyd and mezzo soprano Suzanne Hendrix-Case, all with current or recent ties to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, along with instrumentalists Sean Botkin on piano and Anthony Williams on trombone. The final product was filmed in January in the jazz recording studio at UNI's Russell Hall, using two cameras to capture long shots and close-ups.
The free event is part of the opera theater's free 2nd Thursday Series, which launched in September and continues through March. An idea borne of the pandemic, Daniel Kleinknecht, the organization's founder and artistic director, contacted Hill Cobb in August about creating something for the virtual realm.
'Everybody's trying to figure out, how do we make our world work? We've got to try to keep our audiences with us or we'll lose them when we can't do live performances,” said Hill Cobb, 69, of Hiawatha, a composer whose works have been performed at home and abroad. She has served in academic leadership positions throughout her career, and taught composition and music theory at UNI before retiring in 2019.
Kleinknecht proposed having her compose a short opera, with two or three small scenes for one singer, a pianist and perhaps one other musician. The pandemic already had paused the premiere of her new musical, 'The Suffragist,” so Hill Cobb welcomed the chance to write again, and landed right away on the notion of Zoom.
'I thought, let's go with the Zoom thing because everybody is experiencing all this weird stuff with Zoom,” she said during a Zoom interview with The Gazette and Hendrix-Case. 'Everybody's worried about the dog coming in while they're teaching or while they're having a meeting or the kids toddling up, so it's a common experience.”
However, she never starts writing music until she has words, so she reached out to Boyd, a professor of music history and associate director of UNI's School of Music.
'Melinda is a fabulous music historian,” Hill Cobb said. 'Her main thing is looking at women who've written operas, but she also has a very dry sense of humor. She agreed to write the libretto, and of course, she's had experience with Zoom meetings.”
Collaboration was going to be the key to creating a work with such a short timeline, Hill Cobb said, and keeping it humorous was paramount during the pandemic.
She told Kleinknecht, 'We need to have something lighthearted for this because people have too much pain and sorrow going on.” It also needed to live with enough visual trappings to keep it fun and manageable, without going overboard. To that end, Elvis makes an appearance, by way of a portrait taken from Boyd's office, where her predecessor had left it.
'Opera is a blending of music and singing and acting and the visual,” Hill Cobb said. 'In grand opera, it's the spectacle that everybody wants to see.”
Likewise, in Zoom meetings, some people go to great lengths to create an interesting backdrop behind them, and using Elvis plays into that as Emma gets more comfortable and creative with her new Zoom world.
'Hopefully people will laugh,” Hill Cobb said.
It also takes the right singer to sell it, she said, so she turned to Hendrix-Case, 41, of Waterloo. An assistant professor of voice and vocal pedagogy, she also handles the graduate coordinator duties for UNI's School of Music - and she has sung on some of the world's most prestigious stages, from Chicago, New York and San Francisco to the Vienna State Opera - and made her Metropolitan Opera debut 2019 in Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten.”
'We have this fabulous singer, and she lives just up the road,” Hill Cobb exclaimed.
The process involved writing music that would not only advance the storyline, but showcase the singer's flexibility and range. The result takes the character of 'well-meaning but bumbling” Emma through three stages of navigating the world of online meetings: Act I: 'The Zoom Novice,” Act II: 'Something's Wrong With Karen,” And Act III: 'I'm Gonna Need More Wine.”
Emma begins knowing virtually nothing in the first scene, dressing for comfort, not work. In the next scene, she steps up her appearance, but spends a lot of time criticizing her boss, Karen. In the final scene, she finds out how hard it is to be the boss when she has to take charge of the meeting - and gets a bit derailed when her daydrinking throws her off topic. Along the way, she also has conversations with her husband, whose 'voice” is played by the trombone.
As with any role, serious or humorous, Hendrix-Case has to find the character's truth through her evolution.
'I always think about that sense of inevitability,” she said, 'like, how do I make this sound like this is the only logical thing for this person to be saying at this moment.”
She highlighted her score in multiple colors to clarify and categorize to whom she was speaking and the messages Emma was trying to get across.
'It helped to break it down,” she said, 'because essentially what I was singing was my inner monologue for the most part.”
'I don't write the easiest music in the world,” Hill Cobb said, noting that contemporary composers are known for writing vocal leaps, which is well-suited to Hendrix-Case's artistry.
'She's got this beautiful voice that's all even, and she can she can do any leap. You're going to hear a really technically great singer,” Hill Cobb said.
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If you watch
' What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents 'Operatini,” a debut event for 'Emma's Misadventures in Zoomland”
' Featuring: Mezzo soprano Suzanne Hendrix-Case, music by Nancy Hill Cobb and libretto by Melinda Boyd
' When: 7 p.m. Thursday
' Cost: Free, donations accepted
' Information: cropera.org/operatini
'Operatini” will include demonstrations of original cocktails by mixologists in Cedar Rapids and New York. Create one of these cocktails or an 'operatini” of your own design to have in hand while watching this new comedic work commissioned by the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.
The Zeppelin Operatini
From Danny Perisco, mixologist, Zeppelin's Restaurant, Cedar Rapids
1 ounces Hpnotiq
1/2 ounce vodka
1/2 ounce Moscato
1/2 ounce lemon juice
Shake above ingredients vigorously on ice, and strain in a martini glass. Top off with Moscato; garnish with a lemon wedge.
The Bizet 75 Operatini
From Matthew Miller, mixologist, New York
2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Shake above ingredients vigorously on ice, strain into a martini glass.
Top with Champagne and add a 1/2 ounce splash of Chambord raspberry liqueur.
Garnish with a lemon twist rubbed on the rim of the glass; toss into the drink.