Nothing to stop you
Soper: The three-dimensional work of music-theatre comes naturally to me. It’s what I daydream about. This theatrical awareness has really shaped how I think about being a composer. It’s been a part of my work since I can remember.
There are things I can’t get to the bottom of with music alone, so then text comes in, and then my performer persona sometimes gets into the music somehow.
I didn’t study singing until my late twenties, and I never formally studied writing. I often feel like I’m not quite measuring up to where I want to be as a performer, as a composer, or as a writer separately, but in combining all three elements, I feel I’ve managed to say something meaningful, something I’m proud of.
I do feel like I’m sort of an…amateur? Or an autodidact? But I think it’s common for artists to have a realization at some point in their careers: that actually there’s nothing stopping you from doing whatever you want.
Ashley Kelly Tata: I have always been interested in theatricalizing music—or musicalizing theater—in taking the artistic elements and putting them on the same plane, rather than prioritizing the text, say.
The performers are often musicians in a work that is asking them to execute an action in time and space, similar to what an actor would do. They can be exquisite musicians, but are not always trained in acting. There is something about this kind of work that is very different from conventional work with a linear narrative structure. During the process we explore how the different elements of production interact with each other, physically. That informs the shape of the work.
Putting all of the elements on a more equal playing field changes the experience for an audience. The performers stop relying so much on a kind of read-across-the-page, left-to-right, right/wrong, brain-centered mode of “getting it.” They start to perceive the message in their body more—it’s a much more corporeal experience.
Soper: After I wrote the original story, based on the legend of the virgin and the unicorn, the pandemic happened. And I started making YouTube videos to stay sane. One series drew on elements from the short story I’d written about the virgin-for-hire trying to catch the unicorn, and each video in the series was bookended by three-part madrigals.
My dear friend and frequent collaborator, soprano Brett Umlauf, saw the videos, and asked if she could sing the madrigals. I said, “Well, you know, if you have a couple of friends, I can make it into a twenty-minute song cycle.” So Brett brought together two of her friends to perform a short cycle. One happened to also play violin, and Brett herself had been learning ukulele. And the rest is history!
The “pandemic-ness” felt weirdly relevant. I would walk the empty Smith College campus, into my empty building, and teach over zoom, then buy a loaf of bread and go home. I felt like a medieval monk. And then I’m writing this, like, “ukulele opera” set in ambiguously medieval times.
I sang and performed a lot of the material as I worked on it. Recording vocal demos for my own works is very helpful—it has become part of my process, helping me to shape the whole thing. And it is efficient to hear things before you make someone else learn it.
I wrote the ukulele parts on the ukulele. I get very excited about teaching myself something or learning something new. At Smith College, they have a bunch of ukuleles you can rent out of the library. So that part of the process was really just like, “Oh, this chord seems fun.” It’s the only time that I have learned how to play an instrument in order to compose for it.
Tata: We have been trained in a very siloed way. I think that’s changing a little bit—a lot of institutions are experimenting with that in education. There’s more of an understanding of interdisciplinarity among my students.
And most of my artist colleagues seem to be hyphenated makers. My feeling is that there is no other way to make work. It’s the Gesamtkunstwerk, but you don’t have to have appropriate a German word for this thing that is just how some people naturally express whatever their medium is.
But labels and categories help sell things. Without the right category how will it be marketed? Sometimes it seems that not knowing what to call it can get in the way of letting people experience and enjoy it. Sure it’s a chamber opera. But there’s a lot of text in it, not the sprechen kind. It’s a musical - but the music is coming out of the new classical music tradition.