Dec. 27, 2023

An Interview With the Creators of Opera To Go's Katie: The Strongest of the Strong


Katie: The Strongest of the Strong, an HGO-commissioned opera for students and families, is now on tour! We asked composer Faye Chiao and librettist Anton Dudley to tell us the story behind the story.  

Tell us about yourselves! 

Chiao and Dudley: We met at a wedding (not our own!). After talking for a bit at dinner, Faye got up and sang an aria for the happy couple. Anton said, “Wait, you’re in opera?” Faye said, “Yes.” We applied for a grant from OPERA America, which funded our first operatic collaboration, Island of the Moon 
Two years later, we got a commission from Houston Grand Opera to write Katie: The Strongest of the Strong. The opera was supposed to go into production in Fall 2020… and we think the whole world knows what happened next! Not deterred, HGO staged the opera for online audiences. We got to “zoom in” to rehearsals and watch the final product from many states away. Now, three years later, Katie is live on stage. We couldn’t be more grateful. 

How would you describe the story? 

Chiao and Dudley: Based on the life of Austro-American weightlifter Katie Brumbach, it’s a charming and cheeky tale of Katie’s rise to fame as she outlifts the strongest man in the world, joins the circus, and eventually finds her place as an icon of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. Told through the eyes of journalist Marina Martin, a chorus of circus women take on a multitude of characters in this playful and funny operatic adventure that incorporates puppetry, vaudeville, and immense heart, showing us that strength and beauty come in all shapes and sizes. 

What inspired you to create this piece?  

Chiao and Dudley: There isn’t very much information about Katie Sandwina: a few pictures, posters, newspaper articles, etc. Yet, she was an icon in her time. Her story is remarkable, from her taking the title away from the “Strongest Man in the World” to become the “Strongest Person in the World,” to her treasured romance and shocking performance antics with her husband, to her influential political views. Katie surprised and delighted us, and certainly in reading about her life, we could hear music. Very real, she is the stuff of legend: a true opera heroine. As people who have often felt outside of mainstream society, she belongs in the pantheon of people who show us that you can find a broad community and leave a productive mark on society, without changing the wonderful parts of you that may make you feel like an outsider.  

Are you excited about HGO bringing Katie back? 

Chiao and Dudley: Very much! While we loved the digital release of the show, the opera was conceived to be performed live in front of live audiences. This is when opera is at its finest, when the energy of the audience and the performers can meet in a shared space; that’s when the real magic happens. 

How did you approach elements of humor in the context of the suffrage movement? 

Chiao and Dudley: Life doesn’t follow one style; humor and conflict coexist, as do joy and pain. Theaterre is an abstraction of life; we abstract something to draw attention to it. In doing so, the emotions remain true. Just because humor exists, doesn’t mean something can’t be taken seriously – in fact, it’s often easier to engage with the seriousness of a subject when it’s communicated through humor. Humor makes us laugh, and when we laugh, we are open. When we are open, we learn, share, engage, and sympathize… and that’s what live performance is all about. 

Opera to Go! to your school, library, or community space. For more information, call 713-225-0457 or email 

about the author
Favour Aimufua
Favour Aimufua is Community & Learning Programs Coordinator