Photos from a production of The Canticle of the Black Madonna at the Newmark Theatre in Portland.

An Opera is Born

The development of an opera by Ethan Gans-Morse, MMus ’13, provides a template for how new works can be created for a 400-year-old art form.

In the spring of 2010, Ethan Gans-Morse faced a big decision. The composer had completed extensive course work for his master’s degree in composition at the UO School of Music and Dance. All that remained was his thesis, which he supposed would be a 20-minute oratorio—a combination of music and words favored by Baroque composers such as George Frideric Handel, whose Messiah is the most famous example. Gans-Morse was inspired by the 2007 world premiere of music professor Robert Kyr’s “environmental oratorio,” A Time for Life, in Portland. That piece showed Gans-Morse it was possible to touch listeners’ souls with music about contemporary topics (in this case, ecological destruction). When he enrolled at the UO in 2008, the opportunity to work with Kyr was a major motivation.

The opera featured 30 original costumes, professional sets,16 gallery-quality leather masks, a 14-piece orchestra, a 16-voice chorus, six principal characters, and
a combination of  professional and university performers.

He even had a story to set to music. In 2010, the twin dramas of the environmentally catastrophic BP oil spill and the mounting stories of war veterans coming home from Afghanistan with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had seized his imagination and that of his life partner, Tiziana DellaRovere, whose father had suffered from PTSD after fighting for Italy during World War II. A poet and teacher, DellaRovere began writing a story about a war veteran who came home from Afghanistan to Louisiana to find himself struggling with his memories and his relationship with his wife and home. The intersection of personal tragedy and larger social issues (the devastating effects of war and environmental degradation) seemed to cry out for something more directly impassioned than a short oratorio.

“Like a sculptor finding the figure that already exists inside the marble, The Canticle of the Black Madonna chose its own form and structure,” Gans-Morse recalls. “Opera is a unique vessel for communicating psychological and emotional worlds. You can explore not just words and thoughts, but also go deeper into the nonverbal, the emotional.”

Kyr agreed. But, he warned them, creating an opera was a long and complex process that encompasses much more than just writing music. The most complicated and expensive art form to produce, opera involves musicians, composers, writers, directors, lighting and sound designers, costumes, props, and often choruses.

In most graduate music composition programs, a thesis project is written and evaluated based on the score—and then remains on a shelf, unperformed. But “at the UO, every thesis and dissertation is actually performed. It’s important to artistic and professional development,” says Kyr. “We never have a ‘shelf piece.’ It’s always produced as a living work of music and the student takes an active role in that production.”

Writing, rehearsing, producing, and performing an opera would take at least another year, maybe two, with no guarantee of success. In Kyr’s memory, no other UO student had ever completed a master’s project of such ambition.

On the other hand, if Gans-Morse stayed at the UO, he and DellaRovere could seize a rare opportunity: creating a new opera that spoke directly to events happening in the moment of its making. So after a long talk with Kyr, he made a decision: he wanted to leave Eugene with not just a diploma, but with an opera.

But even if he fulfilled his degree requirements, how could a student who’d never composed a piece so complex create a work of such scope—something that even some of the most experienced contemporary composers had tried and failed to produce?

Making Music that Matters

Growing up in southern Oregon, Gans-Morse took voice and piano lessons, played clarinet in his high school marching band, sang with choirs, and served as a professional accompanist for choral groups and soloists. At Minnesota’s Macalester College, he split his studies among linguistics, performance (clarinet, voice, piano), and composition.  Although he knew he wanted to compose, he wasn’t ready to commit to a career of writing music. After college, he taught linguistics in Mexico. One day, while visiting the southern city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, he felt the craving to make music again. He learned that one of only two Steinways in the city resided in a three-century-old Spanish chapel and cultural center, whose director told the young American visitor that he was welcome to practice on the instrument—if he would agree to give a public recital. Gans-Morse’s performance of Spanish music drew a crowd representing a broad socioeconomic spectrum—a greater range than anyone could remember. It was firsthand evidence of music’s power to bring diverse people together. 

A few months later, while visiting family in southern Oregon, he met DellaRovere, who shared his ideas about making art that mattered to people. “For me as an artist and for my place in the world as a human being, there had to be something that had meaning, a place where I had something to give,” Gans-Morse recalls. He resolved to pursue graduate study to learn how to make meaningful music. Discovering Kyr’s music showed Gans-Morse that he could compose classical music “to tell stories about our culture today.”

As a graduate student, Gans-Morse worked with DellaRovere to write and rewrite the libretto, matching the words to the structure of his music. Under Kyr’s guidance, they were able to develop the opera through a series of workshops at the UO. These included a staged reading, which focused on perfecting the libretto, and sessions with singers and a pianist to fine-tune the music.

Canticle of the Black Madonna

Gans-Morse learned other skills needed by a 21st-century composer in the UO’s program, which followed an entrepreneurial model well before most other academic programs recognized the need to teach composers more than just how to write music.  As Kyr says, “In today’s world, composers teach, they direct new music ensembles, they have lives as performers as well as composers, and they’re also arts administrators in an academic setting or in their own nonprofit organizations.”

Accordingly, Gans-Morse created his own new music group, Ambrosia Ensemble, one of a half-dozen student-run groups the UO music school sponsored during his stay. The group played and sang new music by Oregon composers and also formed the core of the Canticle orchestra. Gans-Morse and DellaRovere also established Anima Mundi Productions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “healing the soul of the world through the arts.”

Gans-Morse credits the school, and especially Kyr, with providing unprecedented support. “The integrity of a work of art is everything to him,” Gans-Morse says of his mentor. “He has a total dedication to the soul of the artwork that transcends all ego and money and logistics. Whatever it took in terms of access to resources, he fought for it.” From choral director Sharon Paul (who let him cherry pick her best students) to opera director Karen Esquivel and building manager David Mason (who bent rules to afford the cast the rehearsal time needed for the final week of preparation, performance, and a recording session), “they all went to bat for me,” Gans-Morse recalls.

Each night after rehearsal at Beall Concert Hall, the team had to deconstruct the huge wooden centerpiece of the set, reassembling it on stage the next day. Gans-Morse poured his life savings and another two-and-a-half years of his life into completing his opera. It wound up using 30 original costumes, professional sets, 16 gallery-quality leather masks (handmade by DellaRovere), a 14-piece orchestra, a 16-voice chorus, six principal characters, and a combination of both professional and university performers.

At its February 2013 performance, the completed UO version of The Canticle of the Black Madonna drew raves from observers, but just as important was its educational impact. “Ethan’s opera is the ideal example of what has become the core of our program, which focuses on both artistic and professional development,” says Kyr. “It exemplifies the process we’ve worked so hard to create and sustain over the past two decades. His opera was an incredible journey of creativity for everyone involved. At every step, it was very moving to witness what the work needed to unfold and be fully realized, and how it emerged from deeply held convictions of both Ethan and Tiziana.” 

But it was only a first step. Degree in hand, Gans-Morse now turned to the next task: taking Canticle beyond the classroom to the world.

A Bigger Stage

As the lights went up in Portland’s Newmark Theatre last Labor Day weekend, audience members might have thought they were seeing one of Portland Opera’s glittering productions. The $300,000 budget was evident everywhere: an elaborate set that variously evoked the Louisiana bayou and the Afghan desert; printed programs; projections by an Oregon Shakespeare Festival video designer; a Portland-based stage director whose many national credits include New York’s Metropolitan Opera; a chorus and instrumental ensemble that each included a two dozen or more performers.

Over the following two-and-a-half hours, the audience beheld a visual spectacle led by powerful performances by the four professional lead singer-actors and a chorus led by one of Portland’s top choir directors. DellaRovere’s gripping story recounted the troubled homecoming of Adam, a veteran whose wife Mara finds her companion more attached to a whiskey bottle and memories of his lost Army comrades than to their marriage. When the BP oil spill threatens to wipe out the oyster business they inherited from his father (which she’s been running in Adam’s absence), their crisis hits a cracking point. Healing ultimately comes in the form of the mystical title spirit (a medieval hybrid of pre-Christian nature deity and Catholic icon who here represents the healing power of maternal love) and another Army veteran friend. The opera draws a parallel between healing people scarred by violence and healing a planet endangered by pollution and other human causes.

The performances drew unanimous critical praise, particularly for Gans-Morse’s choral writing. “The Canticle of the Black Madonna opened my heart and brought new healing to me, 44 years after I returned from Vietnam,” said Silver Star medal winner and former West Point instructor Bill Ritch, echoing the thoughts of other veterans, many of whom saw a preview performance for free, with a counselor present to help them manage any PTSD episodes.

In addition to combat vets and their families,  the audience included other first-time operagoers who were drawn to a subject that spoke directly to their lives. (Veterans had been involved in the production from the outset, including playing nonspeaking roles and helping with various aspects of the production.) The newbie audience and modern subject matter distinguished Canticle from the usual opera-house fare. Most American companies endlessly recycle the same handful of European classics. Canticle provided a new university-based model for renewing the genre by spawning American operas that address contemporary concerns.

While continuing to pitch Canticle to regional opera companies around the country, Gans-Morse and DellaRovere are already thinking about their next collaboration. Just as Canticle loosely follows the classic story of Odysseus’s return to his wife Penelope, their as-yet-untitled new opera uses the myth of Persephone to tell a story about child trafficking set in the Pacific Northwest. “We have this live performing art, opera, developed through great geniuses for the last 400 years, and we have institutions—opera houses, performers, musicians—to use that art form to tell stories about our culture today,” Gans-Morse says. “There’s so much potential in the art form to do something of value.”

More information about The Canticle of the Black Madonna is available at www.CBMopera.com.

Brett Campbell, MS ’96, lives in Portland, teaches journalism at Portland State University, and covers the arts for such publications as Oregon ArtsWatch and the Wall Street Journal.