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Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director, Melissa Smey. Here is the second installment, about Kate Soper's upcoming performance of her piece IPSA DIXIT.

Melissa Smey
Melissa Smey, photo by Matt Zugale

Kate Soper, who was recently a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, is one of this season’s compelling composers. How did you first encounter her?

Kate’s been on my wish list for quite a while now. I first heard her singing one of her own works at St. Peter’s Church: “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say.” It’s an amazing setting of some texts Lydia Davis, and it became a movement in Ipsa Dixit, the piece she’ll be performing. In an incredibly compact space, Kate and the flutist Erin Lesser explore the distance between words and meaning. Erin does this incredible circular breathing on the bass flute, which shouldn’t even be physically possible. It was the only moment that took me out of the performance because I was thinking, “What is going on here? Oh, my God.” I watched the piece again on YouTube and it made me start looking at everything Kate’s done.


How did her Composer Portrait move from wish list to reality?

Flutist Tim Monroe programmed “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say” with Kate for a fundraising party one spring when we announced a new season. And I took them both out to dinner afterwards. Kate is really smart, like scary smart, and we were just chatting. But it had to percolate. Composer Portraits has typically featured music performed by someone other than the composer. I had to expand my mental conception of the series to embrace someone who fully inhabits the role of a composer/performer.

Even in the midst of the most stressful day, it blew me away.

Then this past February I went to see Ipsa Dixit—it was the night my husband and I moved apartments. Even in the midst of the most stressful day, it blew me away. It’s a really complex work and yet it’s also so funny, so enjoyable. I knew I had to bring it to Miller with her in it. But it was late to put it on the schedule. The other thing is that I can still be kind of a shy fan. It takes some courage to get up the nerve to write to the composers.

I would think that most people would be pretty happy to hear from you at this point.

I know it’s silly. We'll call it humility. When I decided to put on my big girl pants and write to her to see if she had plans to do it anywhere else in New York, she didn’t. So I was like, let’s do this.

Kate Soper
Kate Soper, photo by Matt Zugale

You didn’t think to yourself this has already been done?

That’s crazy. It had two performances. The audiences were very enthusiastic but small. This is a great work and it deserves a wider audience. It’s shortsighted to think we must always do pieces that have never been done before. If we're trying to create a repertoire that people can understand, that they have feelings for, then we need some repetition. 

This is a great work and it deserves a wider audience. It’s shortsighted to think we must always do pieces that have never been done before.

I'm not a fan of commissioning for the sake of commissioning, that every program must have a world premiere. If the creation of new work is important, then it’s also important to continue supporting that work. And I aim to be working with ensembles whose intent is to keep those pieces in their repertoire. They have to live on.

Does this work need repetition because it’s so erudite?

There’s a lot to digest in it—Aristotle and Sophocles, Robert Duncan and Wittgenstein. But it’s perfectly okay to have done no homework in preparation. It will reward multiple hearings and deeper exploration, but it’s captivating and engaging on a first encounter. We have the texts on our website so you can read them before or after if you want to really sit with them.

I imagine hearing and seeing the piece live with staging fosters its ability to communicate—the way a theater-goer might better be able to access Shakespeare as read by excellent actors with inflection and all the other visual cues of performance.

Yes, and because these musicians truly love this piece and fully inhabit it from the moment it begins. And then there's the humor in it. Kate is so imperious ringing her bell in the first movement. Kate and Ian have a duet in the fourth movement that’s like Nick and Nora Charles drawing room scene in The Thin Man, but instead of circling each other around a table, it’s a marimba.

It’s amazing to me that composers/performers are not always afforded the kind of respect and admiration as composers who do not play their own music. Why is that?

Kate performs for the entire 90 minutes, which is hard, very hard to pull off. And it’s built around her vocal capabilities. It’s amazing to me that composers/performers are not always afforded the kind of respect and admiration as composers who do not play their own music. Why is that?

 

>> Learn more about Kate Soper's upcoming Composer Portrait

>> Read the first part of our Q&A series about Composer Portraits