After Transforming Classics, an Opera Company Tries a Premiere

“We often say that when we are doing Mozart or Verdi, we’re doing a world premiere, essentially,” Louisa Proske, one of the founders and...


“We often say that when we are doing Mozart or Verdi, we’re doing a world premiere, essentially,” Louisa Proske, one of the founders and artistic directors of Heartbeat Opera, said in a recent interview.

Since 2014, Heartbeat has made a persuasive case for that claim, with chamber-size, imaginative and often quite moving takes on classics like “Carmen,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Fidelio.” In these radical acts of transformation, no corner of the libretto or score is left unconsidered or unchanged.

But now the company is preparing a different kind of premiere: its first original work, “The Extinctionist,” which will be previewed in a semi-staged production at PS21 in Chatham, N.Y., on Saturday and Sunday, both in person and online, as part of New York Opera Fest.

The hourlong opera, adapted by Amanda Quaid from her play of the same name, centers on a woman who, despite having once planned a simultaneous pregnancy with a friend, comes to believe that the only way to save a planet in free-fall is to wish for — and contribute to — humanity’s extinction. “Who in their right mind brings a child here?” she asks.

Quaid and Proske, the production’s director, along with Daniel Schlosberg, the opera’s composer, and Jacob Ashworth, its music director — all of them together in an idyllic residency in Chatham — gathered for a group video interview to discuss “The Extinctionist” on Sunday (when, fittingly, The New York Times’s front page led with the headline “World Is Facing First Long Slide in Its Population”). These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How does this project fit into Heartbeat Opera’s body of work?

DANIEL SCHLOSBERG I feel like one of Heartbeat’s main reasons for being on Earth is to reground opera into theater as a theatrical form. As a composer, for me, opera is theater, plain and simple. It is about telling a story, with as many musical tools, functions, forms, genres as possible.

In this opera, you hear spoken dialogue. It actually begins with spoken dialogue, accompanied by what I would basically call Muzak, by a meditation teacher. Then it goes into singing, but there are also moments of speaking. There are moments of shouting. There are moments of shrieking on pitch. There are moments of a number of things: electric guitar as if it’s a heavy metal band, or a free jazz combo with drum set.

The opera is the entire universe of sound that I could possibly create to tell the story of this woman as she gets bombarded by the world and by people around her, and how she navigates that musical landscape. Sometimes it’s supporting her, sometimes she’s fighting with it, sometimes she’s trying to catch up to it. It’s all about that relationship between her and the other characters, and her and the music.

Amanda, could you talk about how the text transformed from straight theater to this?

AMANDA QUAID I wrote the play as a one-act in 2019 for Ensemble Studio Theater. Changing it into an opera really was about excavating the core emotional tension and then fanning the flames of that until it got bigger and bigger. So what I got to do with the libretto is really go for extremes, go for her extreme ambivalence about having a child, her fears and her hopes. It was an opportunity to really allow the size of her conflict to shine. I think what’s sometimes missing in these big narratives about global change are the personal struggles and the people who are going through these decisions.

LOUISA PROSKE This woman is not a Joan of Arc of environmentalism. She’s flawed and she’s torn — and she has, I think, this understandable but also very problematic craving for control over her own body and over a world that is just coming apart in front of her eyes. Often we call this a haiku opera. It’s very, very distilled, but there are so many different human realities in there, and we’re just trying to excavate them one by one.

Why was opera the right medium to revisit this story?

JACOB ASHWORTH Like so many of the operas that we’ve taken with Heartbeat and done reimagined versions of, it’s this global, huge issue and then it’s all about the smallest relationships. You can’t really put climate change itself onstage. But what you can do is show what climate change does to a marriage, to a friendship, to somebody’s choices in their lives, to their own activism, to their own involvement in the world around them. You can see an echo chamber of somebody’s thoughts. The band amplifies that echo chamber by sometimes just egging her on; it’s there to say we’re going to give it the operatic, visceral feeling.

QUAID What opera is able to do is get straight to the heart through music in a way that dialogue rarely can.

SCHLOSBERG I’ll also add that this main character is fallible. As an audience, she’s the center, and you’re swept along with her. As a composer, I can kind of do some manipulative tricks to put really Romantic music under certain things that she’s saying. As an audience, we’re so in it, and then you realize, Oh, my gosh, am I supposed to take that at face value anymore?

Have your immersions in classic scores, Dan, informed your composing — the way, say, retyping Hemingway novels helped teach Joan Didion to write?

SCHLOSBERG I’m sure that by osmosis certain things have seeped in. I know Jacob looks at moments, and he’s like, that’s Puccini. Then I see, that’s “Into the Woods,” even though maybe that’s not super perceivable. Writing an opera is about willfully saying there is a history here to this genre, but I also think there’s always a dialogue in myself: where I find things that I love about these pieces, versus now I have to go and forge my own path.

Jacob, what else can you say about the idiosyncrasies of Dan’s music?

ASHWORTH Each singer is somewhat related to one of the instruments in the band. So we have four band members and four singers. That’s a great way that the whole group gets to tell the story all at once. The woman’s part itself is what I think is going to start to be known as kind of a new voice type, a new operatic voice type that is able to sing all of the great lyric, dramatic, big stuff and could also sing Sondheim for you and can also act in a play and can do everything. Right now, there are not a lot of people who can do that.

Up here, there’s also been a little something special happening; it’s an outdoor theater, which means that nature is around us. This piece is all about the woman wanting to return nature to itself. Dan has written this figure, which begins the piece and then also ends it, and yesterday we finished it for the first time, and it was literally handed back to nature: The birds and wind took over.

QUAID It almost feels like nature is another band member. The birds are in the rafters, and they’re singing with the singers. It just seems like the perfect place to explore this work.

The Extinctionist

Saturday and Sunday at PS21 in Chatham, N.Y. Livestream tickets at heartbeatopera.org; for in-person tickets, email boxoffice@ps21chatham.org.

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