Emory Report
November 10, 2008
Volume 61, Number 11

“Ophelia’s Gaze” premieres Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. in the Schwartz Center, Emerson Concert Hall. For tickets and information, visit www.arts.emory.edu.



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November 10
, 2008

Gazing upon the creative process

By Jessica Moore and Becky Herring

The Emory Chamber Music Society presents the world premiere of a new chamber opera, “Ophelia’s Gaze,” composed by music professor Steve Everett. The opera’s text is based on the poetry collection, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” (2002, Graywolf Press) by Pulitzer-winner Natasha Trethewey, Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry.

The work is written for soprano, string quartet and interactive audio and video. It merges image, text and sound into a dreamlike meditation on Ophelia, the white-skinned black subject of E.J. Bellocq’s pictorial collection of turn-of-the-century New Orleans prostitutes. The text is sung and narrated by Parisian soprano Katherine Blumenthal, who interacts musically with the Vega String Quartet and with her own images reflected in video mirrors.

Emory Report: What elements of Trethewey’s “Bellocq’s Ophelia” inspired your composition?
Everett: As soon as I read this collection of poems, I had a fairly clear concept of how the work would be structured and how to merge my visual and aural images with Natasha’s text. I had a strong sense of this imagined character, Ophelia, and the physical and psychological world in which she existed. I felt empathy for this young girl and wanted to create a performance opportunity for her to speak, sing and dream.

ER: Describe your performers.
When I conceived of this work, I knew very quickly that Katherine was the ideal vocalist to develop this role. Her light, versatile voice and her youthful beauty were a perfect match for the voice I imagined of Ophelia. The Vega Quartet is a delightful group of people. Their cordial personalities, eagerness to make great music, passion for the ideas embedded in music and their spectacular playing make them one of the most enjoyable groups with whom I have ever worked.

ER: What’s the biggest challenge the piece faces?
In order to bring together the visual and aural images and text for a unified presentation, I’m utilizing several new technologies. A motion capture, live video system and several types of new audio speaker systems will be used, as well as live audio processing software to expand the colors of Katherine’s voice. I have composed for interactive computer music programs and live performers for more than 20 years, but the complexity and challenges of these systems rarely seem to diminish. At the same time, these technologies have developed into robust and expressive devices for contemporary music performance.

ER: What can audience members expect to see and hear during “Ophelia’s Gaze”?
Natasha’s poems should be front and center in this work. Consequently, the poems are sung and read. In my composition and in Natasha’s poetry, there is a chronological sequence of events in which Ophelia moves. At the same time, each poem is an independent glimpse into her thoughts at a given moment. The listener is invited to experience each scene as a separate experience, but hopefully will understand the evolution of the character’s life by the end.