Ghosts of Crosstown
Opera Memphis is creating a cycle of five short operas, collectively titled Ghosts of Crosstown. These pieces will revolve around the lives of people who lived near, or worked in, Memphis’s Sears Crosstown building — an exquisite Art Deco building, which opened in 1927. Sears Crosstown was a vibrant shopping center for more than 50 years, but it fell into disuse in 1993. Today, a group of dedicated residents is resurrecting this vacant space as a mixed-use “vertical urban village.” Our new opera cycle is being commissioned as part of this revitalization effort.
Over the past several months, our creative team has pored through dozens of oral histories from local residents, as well as former Sears employees, who told us their memories of the old Sears Building. These stories range from heartwarming workplace romances to tales of family tragedy and financial hardship. This source material will furnish the inspiration for five thematically linked operas. Each one will be 5-10 minutes in length and each one will be written by a different composer.
We’ve lined up five outstanding American composers for this project. The roster includes Anthony Davis, a celebrated veteran with previous commissions from Chicago Lyric Opera and New York City Opera, along with internationally acclaimed symphonists Kamran Ince and Nathaniel Stookey, and rising stars Jack Perla and Zach Redler. The libretti will be written by Memphis theater company Voices of the South. Heading up our creative team is Maestro Steven Osgood of the Metropolitan Opera.
We are developing all five mini-operas simultaneously. In January, we brought together all the composers, librettists, and singers for a week of collaborative workshops here in Memphis. This weeklong gathering culminated in a session held near the Crosstown Building itself – with active participation from neighborhood residents. As part of the final, on-site workshop, Crosstown residents had a chance to preview the opera cycle in-progress. We sought their input on everything from the themes of each work to the overall mood and authenticity of the pieces.
Ultimately, we will premiere the completed opera cycle in April 2014 at our second annual Midtown Opera Festival. The premiere performance will take place at the building itself, with subsequent performances at Playhouse on the Square, an acoustically perfect 347-seat theater in Midtown Memphis. We have enlisted the Prizm Chamber Ensemble — a highly regarded local group — to accompany these performances.
At Opera Memphis, we take seriously our role as a cultural resource for the entire city of Memphis. Ghosts of Crosstown represents an opportunity to make this resource more accessible for residents of the area surrounding the Crosstown Building, which has been historically underserved by arts and cultural organizations. In addition to sharing first-rate opera with these residents, we hope to promote a feeling of pride in the fact that world-class performers are creating art based on their neighborhood and their stories.
Note: the requested grant funds would be allocated to this project “retroactively” since the funded activities will take place prior to our receipt of a funding decision.
Much like the characters in “Ghosts of Crosstown,” the workaday city-dwellers in LOVE/HATE strive for connectedness while wrestling with the paradoxical closeness and isolation of urban life. Note how Perla’s music gives each speaker a distinct identity as they share their inner monologues with us. Note, too, the layered texture that Perla achieves with only barebones instrumentation: relying solely on a piano and four singers, he creates an almost overwhelming fantasia of fears, regrets, hopes, and dreams.
Two clips (split at 6:25) from an opera about a couple on vacation in the ancient city of Sardis. There, they witness a mythical music contest between Apollo and Pan. Listen for the the divergent motifs and instrumentation associated with the two gods – showcasing Ince’s mastery of diverse musical traditions. Like the ruins of Sardis, the Sears Crosstown Building occupies both a literal place in Memphis, along with a mythical place in the imagination of local residents. Ince excels at celebrating this mythical dimension of specific sites.
This piece highlights Redler’s gift for setting English text. He has a superb ear for the idiosyncratic rhythms of ordinary language, and he understands how it can seamlessly morph from comic sarcasm to gut-wrenching desperation. Note the incredible SPECIFICITY of the speaker. We don’t merely “relate” to her; we actually KNOW her, as a particular person within a particular social and historical context. Similarly, one of the goals for “Ghosts of Crosstown” is for the audience to truly KNOW what life was like for people from our city’s past.
Start and End Dates
04/01/2014 — 06/30/2014