Centuries in the Hours

Lisa Bielawa, Composer & Music Director

A unique opera experience for communities in our changing paradigm

Lisa Bielawa, composer & music director
Claire Solomon, librettist & dramaturg

Jess Medenbach, film & media director
Laurie Rubin, mezzo-soprano

Lisa Bielawa’s new opera Centuries in the Hours illuminates the lives of American women by setting selections from 72 American women's diaries spanning three centuries, which she discovered during extensive research as a William Randolph Hearst Visiting Artist Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in 2018.

Constructed using uniquely participatory methods that Bielawa has been developing to great acclaim throughout the pandemic, the opera enables presenters to actively engage their audience communities in a process that can reach production fruition in any paradigm, from lockdown conditions to live performance. The production will be mountable either as a socially distant live performance or in hybrid in-person/remote presentation, with the option of community members participating via pre-recorded video performances.

The ten historic diarists plus narrator can be played by a cast of as few as five singers (carrying multiple roles) or as many as eleven, with optional smaller roles as desired, with a chamber ensemble of seven instruments and conductor. In addition to these professional performers, each of the ten roles can be prismatically multiplied in its representation through additional pre-recorded video “performances” of each character’s key aria by amateur participants in their homes (see below). Through this unique production feature, members of the host organization’s community can engage more deeply with the process and with our shared history. The performances on video will be captured in advance and integrated into the performance using multiple screens and audio mixed both for live sound and for streaming. The performance may be piped out into an outdoor location for expanded “live” audience access, and also fed to a streaming event that can be viewed anywhere.

Characters:

Narrator - Laurie Rubin, via video
Betsey Stockton, a freed slave who becomes a missionary in Hawai'i (1823)
Sallie McNeill, a desperately depressed Southern belle, slave-owner's daughter (1861)

Mary MacLane, a teen poetic genius isolated in Butte, Montana (1901)
Emily French, a harried and life-worn housekeeper in Denver (1890)
Caroline Barrett White, a New England abolitionist (1860s)
Sarah Wister, a girl evacuated from Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War (1778)

Emily Hawley Gillespie, an Iowa matriarch who dreams of great inventions (1885)
Madam Sarah Kimball Knight, a widow who travels on horseback alone (1704)
Angeles Monrayo Raymundo, a Filipina immigrant going to school for the first time (1921) Charlotte Forten Grimké, Black Philadelphia abolitionist, taught in the South (19th century)

Centuries in the Hours asks: What if these women could be lifted out of their historical contexts and respective life circumstances to encounter one another? What can we learn from these women’s view of American history, seen largely from within the domestic sphere? In fact, women have always worked within cramped quarters and with insufficient resources. The women in Centuries all wrote from home, at times of great constraint. Paper was scarce, as was ink, time, peace, quiet, and light. Might the lens of women’s diaries provide a “shelter-in-place” viewpoint of our shared history?

The dramatic action comes from transhistorical encounters: Lincoln’s assassination sung as a quintet by women across centuries; a freed slave sails from New Haven to Hawai'i in 1822, only to encounter a former slave-owner from 1867; a teen genius in 1901 Montana has words with an impoverished genius housewife in 1890's Denver when she claims 19 is the new 40; a woman in Iowa invents a perpetual motion machine in 1885 that turns out to be a horse, and a Colonial woman rides it from Boston to New Haven in 1704. A Filipina-American teenager goes to school for the first time in the 1920's; a 19th- century woman astrologer creates a Calendar of Fatigue, and a Revolutionary-era teen generalizes about “swains." Each woman gives our Narrator, played by blind mezzo- soprano Laurie Rubin (whose participation will be exclusively via remote video) a magical object – her diary.

At-Home Community Participation

As desired, at-home performances by members of the community can unfold as solo, curated video shoots of the singers in their own homes. The director, dramaturg/librettist Claire Solomon and Lisa Bielawa will interact with each home performer through two or three Zoom meetings leading up to a self-produced “shoot” in their home.

These meetings would be a combination of dedicated team interactions:

  • Librettist Claire Solomon will create teaching guides, consisting of a character study plus historical background on each role, leading to a new depth of awareness about what the character means to them, and ultimately to find the character within themselves.

  • Composer Lisa Bielawa will teach sung phrases to home performers by rote, finding as many or as few phrases that suit their voices and feel natural to their level of ability.

  • Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin will offer a voice lesson/vocal coaching to each of the at-home participants, if desired.

  • The director will coach at-home participants, giving them specific movement and deciding on exact background and “scenic design,” using the features and environments of their own homes.

  • Lastly, a technical director will help each at-home participant set up their equipment (which can be as simple as a cell phone on an inexpensive tripod) to capture and edit an a cappella performance of their coached phrases.

After these videos are edited, Bielawa and the director will integrate them into the sonic and scenic landscape of the performance, using multiple-frame video projections. If necessary, some lead roles and instruments could also be integrated into the live performance using pre-captured audio and video recordings, making the presentation “pandemic-proof” in changing conditions.

Centuries in the Hours is commissioned in part by Kaufman Music Center (KMC), which is workshopping the piece in spring 2021 through the Special Music School. KMC's work-in-progress performance is presented in collaboration with the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest surviving residence and one of the nation's foremost historic houses. Development of Centuries in the Hours was funded in part by OPERA America's Opera Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The work is an outgrowth of a song cycle of the same name that was co-commissioned in 2019 by the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund and ROCO.

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Acclaim for composer Lisa Bielawa:

"a dynamic and innovative composer"

- The Boston Globe

 

"Bielawa’s music is thoughtful and approachable"

- Gramophone

"the formal sophistication and lyrical richness of Bielawa’s music go deep" - The New Yorker

 

"prodigious gift for mingling persuasive melodicism with organic experimentation" - Time Out New York

 

"one of the most brilliant and unforgettable new scores I’ve heard in years" - San Francisco Chronicle

Trailer