(L to R) Tina B. interacts with Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Dennis Whitehead Darling, and Damien Sneed at the Marian’s Song Workshop in November 2019.
The creative team discusses the world premiere of Marian's Song
By Emily N. Wells, HGOco Senior Producing Manager
Two years ago, HGOco Senior Education Manager Alisa Magallón and HGOco Director Carleen Graham started discussing the idea of creating an opera and educational residency aimed at increasing HGO’s engagement with teenage audiences in Houston. Their discussions eventually sparked the creation of Marian’s Song, HGO’s 68th world premiere, which hits the stage of the Cullen Theater this March. The chamber opera, composed by former HGOco Music Director and Composer in Residence Damien Sneed to a libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Houston’s poet laureate emeritus, tells the story of legendary vocalist Marian Anderson through the eyes of a modern-day college student named Nevaeh.
I sat down with Sneed, Mouton, and Dennis Whitehead Darling (the opera’s director) recently so they could share their thoughts about what it was like bringing Marian Anderson’s inspirational story of identity and perseverance to the stage.
EMILY N. WELLS: What influences have shaped your work in bringing Marian’s legacy to the stage?
DEBORAH D.E.E.P. MOUTON (DM): Marian's autobiography was a great source of insight. Not only was I able to learn about her, I was able to see what special events in her own life she held sacred. In addition, I referred to some of the song archetypes from The Greatest Showman and some of the dialogue cues from Hamilton. While this piece is not rap or a musical, the rhythmic cues and language are different than a classic opera, so they both served as great resources.
DAMIEN SNEED (DS): My godmother, the late Jessye Norman, was a huge influence on my work to bring Marian Anderson's legacy to the stage. She had a close relationship with Marian Anderson and shared a lot of pertinent and personal information with me.
DENNIS WHITEHEAD DARLING (DWD): As an African American director, I am very passionate about theater that examines, debates, or provides new insight into the issues that face people of color or any marginalized group. Marian's Song is an opportunity to share with a new generation a story about a remarkable African American icon whose humility, perseverance, and vocal talent became the catalyst for social change. Her legacy paved the way for me and other artists of color to have the opportunity to be a part of this retelling of the story of an American icon.
Please share an aspect of the creative process that has been challenging for you as an individual artist.
DM: I don't think I have ever had the opportunity to work in layered collaboration. Typically, I work closely alongside another artist. We are entangled in some ways. This was a very different process. Each of us had input and some discussion, but much of the creation was done in a silo. Then, we would come back and consult. It was challenging at first to not have that voice to bounce things off of in real time.
DS: A challenging aspect of the creative process was having limited time and resources while trying to tell the story of such a huge figure in America's history as well as the opera world.
DWD: Thus far, the most challenging aspect of bringing Marian's Song to the page is editing down her remarkable life to a 60-minute opera. Marian's journey from obscurity to becoming an American and international icon is difficult to capture in such a short time. Fortunately, Nevaeh, a character who communicates through spoken word created by our talented librettist, provides a modern reflective perspective that propels the story along.
What message or feeling do you want the audience to be left with after experiencing this opera?
DM: I want the audience to be left with two responses. The first would be a sense of connection. Most people know Marian, but know little about her true resilience and fortitude. I think all of us have struggles and hurdles. I want people to see themselves in her. They should be able to connect with their fellow humans and with history greater. The second is a sense of urgency. The world around us is changing greatly. Nevaeh, the main character, chooses to do something about it. We all have that choice. I want us to look around and find a place to plug in, offer understanding, or make the world easier or better for someone who we have no other reason to help but our unbridled kindness.
DS: As composer, I want the audience to be left with the story of Marian's life through the confluence of African American musical styles mixed with those in the European tradition.
DWD: My goal as an artist and storyteller is to present a transformative and emotionally engaging experience that not only informs but inspires the viewer to create positive change in the world. Marian’s Song gives us this opportunity by sharing her story from her humble beginnings to her rise as an American icon. Marian Anderson’s grace, dignity, and talent transcended racial barriers and stirred a nation into taking positive steps toward racial equality. I hope that Marian’s Song will inspire this generation and generations to come and will help them recognize that even the most humble among us can be the catalyst that sparks positive social change.
Please join HGOco on March 5 and 6, 2020 in the Cullen Theater for the world premiere of Marian’s Song. For more information, visit HGO.org/marian.