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Excelsior Project

A newly commissioned chamber opera work from Caleb Burhans depicting Joseph Kittinger's 1960 world record setting free fall.

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Excelsior released on Cedille Records

Posted on October 14, 2014 by Fifth House Ensemble

Excelsior has been released as part of Fifth House Ensemble’s debut album on Cedille Records, with streaming excerpts and purchase information available here.

Recent press:

“The whole undertaking is marked by spirited music-making of the finest kind” – Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

“The Fifth House Ensemble gives us a most fascinating, widely open window on the newer music being written today by the younger generation of composers.” – Grego Applegate Edwards, Classical Modern Music

“It’s clear from the level of performance in the four works on this album that Fifth House Ensemble was thoroughly dedicated to the success of this effort.” – David Abrams, CNY Café Momus

“Next time you’re thinking of trying your luck with a lottery ticket, go with a sure winner and order your copy of Excelsior.” – David Abrams, CNY Café Momus

“It makes sense that Fifth House Ensemble […] should have come up with a program as sophisticated and unexpected as the album “Excelsior.” – Daniel Stephen Johnson, WQXR “Q2”




In an exploration of opera in the modern vernacular, Fifth House Ensemble will commission and produce a new chamber opera, Excelsior, composed by Caleb Burhans. The work will depict Captain Joseph Kittinger’s 4’36” free fall from just over 102,000 feet as part of Project Excelsior. Designed to test the limits of the human body as well as new technology, this jump from 1960 held the world record for the longest free fall until it was broken on October 14, 2012 by Felix Baumgartner. Burhans will expand this 4-minute episode into a 30-minute dramatic experience uniting storytelling, text, music and vivid imagery.

In an attempt to test both technological advances and human limitations, the United States Air Force began experiments in 1958 to design parachute systems that would allow for high-altitude ejection from planes. The third and final test, Excelsior III, was made on August 16, 1960, when Joseph Kittinger began a free fall from 102,800 feet. After 4 minutes and 36 seconds of free fall, Kittinger’s main parachute opened at 17,500 feet, allowing him to land safely on the earth’s surface. Excelsior takes this important event in history and explores its impact on the human psyche. The story wwill be adapted as a libretto by writer John Coletti.  Accomplished composer/performer Caleb Burhans will use this source material to craft the chamber opera. Martha Cluver, soprano, will be the solo singer, playing the role of Kittinger. Fifth House Ensemble (a large, mixed instrumentation chamber ensemble composed of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano), and itsnotyouitsme (Burhans’s violin/electric guitar duo with Grey Mcmurray) will combine to provide the musical underscoring for the work. To bring the show to life, Fifth House Ensemble will work with New York playwright Stan Richardson.  Richardson will provide a written through-line that connects Kittinger’s story to the additional stories presented in the concert presentation, as well as an introduction to the piece that will be projected as text on a screen leading into the piece, which provides a contextual connection for the audience.  Videos from Kittenger’s 1960 free fall that were recorded by the United States Air Force, and that exist in the public domain, will be gathered, combined, and edited to provide stunning and immersive visuals of Kittingers’ fall for the audience.

Project Media

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Prologue from Act 1 of Black Violet, Fifth House Ensemble’s landmark collaboration with graphic novelist Ezra Claytan Daniels and featuring Walter Piston’s Divertimento for Nine Instruments, Movement 1: Allegro. Performed live at the Detroit Symphony’s Mix at the Max, October 2012.

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Excerpts from March 2013 performances of Excelsior. Composed by Caleb Burhans Libretto by John Coletti Performed by members of Fifth House Ensemble, itsnotyouitsme, and Martha Cluver Script for the visuals written by Stan Richardson

Start and End Dates



Chicago, Illinois

1 update
Last update on October 14, 2014

Project Created By

Chicago, Illinois
“You have to admire the sheer imaginative chutzpah these young performers bring to their envelope-pushing enterprise.” -John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune Praised by the New York Times for its “conviction, authority, and finesse,” the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble harnesses the collaborative spirit of chamber music to reach beyond the traditionally-perceived limits of classical music. The ensemble’s artistic,…

In Collaboration With

Composer, Electric Violin & Guitar Duo
New York, New York
Visual Artist
Chicago, Illinois
New York, New York
New York, New York


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