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Laura Kaminsky & Leah Maddrie: Right to Life

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

Every five years or so, we at 5BMF like to go all out and commission twenty composers to write a new song each about this wild, wonderful, gritty, overwhelming city we call our home. For our Five Borough Songbook, Vol. II we were delighted to have the amazing Laura Kaminsky on the roster, and she decided to work with her friend and fellow Bronx resident, poet Leah Maddrie. It was such a pleasure to get to know Leah, who came to several performances and participated in our Creator Chats as well.

The result of Laura and Leah’s collaboration was “Right to Life”, an intensely thought-provoking glimpse into some of the less glamorous parts of city life. Through Leah’s words and Laura’s setting, we come upon a seemingly mundane scene on a subway platform, but are soon forced to consider how unavailable the ‘American Dream’ is to so many. These women created a truly stirring work here, and we’re so grateful to have this song in our collection.

Coincidentally (or is it??), the baritone featured here is none other than Jorell Williams, who will appear in Laura’s NYFOS Next show on June 11 (got your tickets yet??).  Thomas Bagwell was the pianist, at the Brooklyn Premiere of our Songbook’s Volume II, a couple years back:

Laura Kaminsky

Composer Laura Kaminsky discusses her hit opera AS ONE, facilitating new works from women composers, and what she’s been reading lately in our Artist of the Month interview. Witness the world premiere of her collaboratively created song cycle AFTER STONEWALL in NYFOS Next: Laura Kaminsky & Friends on June 11 at The LGBT Center in NYC, co-presented by New York Festival of Song, Five Boroughs Music Festival and The Center as part of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and PRIDE.

(photo by Rebecca Allan)

Since its debut in 2014, your opera As One has become the most frequently performed contemporary opera in the country. What has your experience been of the different productions?  Have any surprised you in their approach to the material? 

It has been a joyful ride, seeing the many different productions of AS ONE following the BAM premiere, which was so sensitively directed by Ken Cazan. Some have been close in spirit and aesthetic to Ken’s, but there has been a wide range of approaches to the work. We’ve had no sets to elaborate sets, no costume changes for Hannah to a plenitude, physical stillness to highly choreographed staging, and much more. To date there are close to 40 singers who have played Hannah, and so the emotional insights brought by these artists have led to many different Hannahs, yet, at the core, her true spirit always shines through. This, I believe, is due to the brilliance of Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s libretto and the way that they sculpted her character, giving her true dimension: heart, mind, humor, vulnerability.

How ‘hands on’ are you with the performers when you are able to attend rehearsals?  What do you tend to look for in performers of your work?

It depends, of course, on each production. It’s always great when a company brings Mark and Kim and me into the process early on, to talk with the director about their concept, and then with the two singers playing Hannah. Those dialogues often help clarify details about how best, and most sensitively, to portray her. The strongest performances are those where the singers go beyond the notes, and even beyond the words, to seek a deep understanding of Hannah’s path to self-acceptance. It is those truly generous artists who go deep who bring a veracity and vulnerability to Hannah that stick with me over time. And there have been so many. I am forever grateful.

You are curating an evening in our NYFOS Next series on June 11 featuring two collaboratively created song cycles including contributed music from several composers. What draws you to creating works via this method? How did you decide which composers to include in our newly commissioned work After Stonewall?

The first cycle on the program, FIERCE GRACE: JEANNETTE RANKIN came about when I was invited to have a program of my music at the Library of Congress after receiving the Koussevitzky Award for my Piano Concerto. The staff was concerned that only a tiny fraction of the music holdings in the collection were by women. I thought that if I proposed a concert of work by a number of women, that would help the statistics. Then Laura Lee Everett at Opera America approached me, Kitty Brazelton, Laura Karpman and Ellen Reid (just awarded the Pulitzer Prize this month!), along with librettist Kimberly Reed, about a commission to recognize us as the most-often supported artists by OA’s Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation’s grants for Female composers, as OA wanted to commission a work from us. I proposed that we premiere that work at the LOC, and that led to a great experience for all, with Heather Johnson and Mila Henry giving our Jeannette life. The more women, the merrier! And the better for changing the statistics. It’s a thrill, now, to bring FIERCE GRACE to the NYFOS Next concert; this time it will be presented as a staged dramatic monodrama, with Kimberly Reed directing.

When NYFOS approached me about curating the June 11 concert, I thought to create another similar work—one librettist, several composers, and for this project, all identifying as lesbian—on a theme relevant to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I reached out to my friend, the extraordinary poet Elaine Sexton and proposed that she write a series of poems on the theme, and when she accepted the commission, the rest fell into place. Her cycle of poems, AFTER STONEWALL, is exceptionally moving and perfect to be set to music. As for the composers, Laura Karpman and her wife, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, immediately said yes, as did Jennifer Higdon, Paula Kimper, and Kayla Cachetta, a former student of mine who is just completing her doctorate at UC Berkeley.

After Elaine delivered the poems, which she knew would be sung by three voices, there was a lot of discussion with Michael Barrett and Jesse Blumberg about which poems worked best for which voice, the order of the series, and which composer would be invited to set which poem. After making some preliminary decisions, I invited each composer independently, sending her the poem I thought was the best fit, and for which voice(s). Everyone was excited to participate, and everyone delivered their scores on time. Shockingly refreshing!  And they are beautiful. I think we have a glorious evening in store.

You’ve received two awards from the government of Poland; how significant is your Polish heritage to your life?  Does it influence your music?

Ha! My connection to Poland is not because of my heritage (I am a first generation American; my dad was born in the Bronx; my mom is from London), but because of my work there (in the late ‘90s, I was director of the European Mozart Academy, then based in Poland, an organization dedicated to keeping the musical life of Eastern Europe healthy after the end of the Soviet Union), and my partnership here in New York with the Polish Cultural Institute; during the 8 years I worked at Symphony Space, I often collaborated with PCI’s music program officer, Ania Perzanowska, to bring Polish music to the U.S., including a multi-national festival that involved Polish music and musicians titled Wall to Wall Behind the Wall: Music from the Soviet Era, and a Chopin Bicentennial project.  

Besides NYFOS Next, what are you working on at the moment? Are there any upcoming pieces or performances that you are especially excited about?

Right now, I am working on revisions to my fourth opera, HOMETOWN TO THE WORLD, with my long-term collaborator, librettist and filmmaker Kimberly Reed, that we recently workshopped at San Francisco Opera. It’s a commission from a consortium co-led by Santa Fe and San Francisco Opera, and is scheduled to premiere in fall 2020. HOMETOWN is about the largest ICE raid in US history, at a kosher meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, that devastated the community; the opera takes place in the aftermath of the raid.

Upcoming as of today’s writing are AS ONE’s with Opera Idaho and Eugene Opera, then, here in New York, with New York City Opera/American Opera Projects, as well as THE FULL RANGE OF BLUE, a chamber work that Hub New Music will be performing soon at Connecticut Summerfest, and then the PIANO QUINTET, with Ursula Oppens and the Cassatt String Quartet at the Seal Bay Festival in Maine.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

Yesterday afternoon, I took my mom to the New York City Ballet and the last piece on the program was a favorite, the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102, played brilliantly by Stephen Gosling.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

Just being with my wife, Rebecca.  Sometimes I like to sit in her studio while she’s working—she’s a painter, and currently is preparing for an exhibition that opens at David Richard Gallery in Harlem the day after our NYFOS Next concert, so there’s a lot of time in her studio these days.

Also reading—I am just finishing Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, and have begun Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time; walking—either in the city or in nature; looking at art, mostly with Rebecca; spending time with friends.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

The human voice. Lyrics that need to be sung, not spoken. Music that needs to give those lyrics their full depth and lets them pierce the mind and heart in indelible ways.

What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

This is truly impossible to answer. Different songs go through my head at different times and for different reasons. But if I had to point a finger at “favorite,” I might say that I turn to Sondheim most frequently. Please don’t ask which song!

Laura Kaminsky: As One

This week I wanted to look at composers not yet featured on NYFOS programs who have exceptional ‘voices’ in the contemporary realm and more specifically, ones with a natural facility writing for the voice in particular. In Laura Kaminsky’s case, her entree into the opera world would not only have tremendous impact in the classical, social and artistic scenes, but she also would introduce a subject matter so current that soon thereafter it became a cultural obsession—the experience of being transgender.

Opera was, it seems, a gentle and welcome place for that conversation to get started. This was 2014, so before we met ‘Caitlin’ Jenner and shortly before Transparent premiered on Amazon. The setting was ripe and since its premiere at BAM, it has been produced in nearly a dozen cities here and abroad. That is unique for new music! You’d think Laura would need to have written an opera beforehand to have had such a slam dunk but it wasn’t the case. The same goes with David Bruce’s full-length opera Nothing and Joby Talbot’s Everest. They all had an immediate facility in the art form, a genre considered by many to be the most difficult—opera, the synthesis of so many forces all at once. This is certainly part of the reason there is a lot of BAD new opera…it’s just so damn hard to pull off. Laura teamed up with phenomenal, Pulitzer-prize winning librettist Mark Campbell (whom I first met with NYFOS doing the premieres of his two operas, Lucrezia by Bolcom and Musto’s Bastianello, both comic masterpieces) and librettist/filmmaker Kimberly Reed, on whose story the opera is based. The union of these three great minds could not have been more serendipitous. When my husband baritone Kelly Markgraf and I first read through the libretto, we were in tears. So on multiple levels, the work was profound. Laura had heard Kelly and I sing together four years before at Symphony Space while she was the Artistic Director there. She asked us on the spot if we’d consider premiering an opera of hers—the idea for it hadn’t even yet been fully conceived. In the final product, the male and female singers would represent the male and female aspects of the protagonist Hannah. Kelly’s part (the male) was more prominent in the beginning of the piece and by the end, the mezzo (female part) had fully taken hold. So on that level as well it was a revolutionary idea—two sides of the same person played by two different singing-actors. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in straight theater OR opera. Then for Kelly and I, a married couple, to explore this uncharted, potent and highly emotional material together was one of the greatest privileges of our lives. Every now and then with new music, you get the feeling you should be pinching yourself. So forgive me for being biased!! In the following video, you’ll see clips from the protagonist’s experiences in ‘Paper Route’ ‘Sex Ed’, ‘The Perfect Boy’ where Hannah-before tries to do everything athletic she can to make herself fit in as a boy, ‘To Know’ where Hannah-before hears the word ‘transgender’ for the first time on TV (Kim and Mark brilliantly never actually mention the literal word) and the final vignette ‘Norway’ where Hannah-after fully embraces herself and takes a brave step forward as her true self, ‘As One.’

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