The April 21 premiere of "Girl in Six Beats,” a University of Southern Maine School of Music collaboration with The Telling Room, and commissioned by Opera Maine, was deemed a success by local press.
In July 2017, several teenage students from the Telling Room (a nonprofit writing center for young people in Portland) attended a 30-hour opera camp, an immersive educational experience, where the students created the "Girl in Six Beats" libretto. They then shared it with USM School of Music Professor Daniel Sonenberg, whose opera The Summer King had its "fully-staged" world premiere last spring with the Pittsburgh Opera, and he composed the music.
The one-act chamber opera, approximately thirty minutes in length, is a saga of discovery for a teenage girl, whose feeling of voicelessness has prompted her to attempt to take her own life. Prompted by her encounters in limbo with various opinionated characters all eager to design her eternal destiny, she asserts her own voice for the first time and commits herself to life in order to restore her most important relationship - that with her mother.
On April 21 and 22 the USM Opera Workshop students performed the opera at Corthell Concert Hall, USM Gorham Campus. The performance then travelled to two of the teenage librettists' local schools, to be performed for their students.
Allan Kozinn in his Portland Press Herald review stated that "Sonenberg’s music for the work’s four characters is attractive and melodic, but with plenty of odd-interval leaps and occasional meter shifts that ought to sharpen the student singers’ ears for contemporary vocal writing. The singers in the five main roles ... projected confidence and did a fine job bringing their roles to life."
Kozinn also praised the student singers themselves, highlighting Rachel Shukan’s performance as "a smoothly polished, emotionally pointed account of the title role," as well as David Myers, in his role of “Slushie Guy," bringing an attractive tenor sound and good sense of irony to his role."
Emilia Bailey, one of the students to write the libretto the previous summer at The Telling Room opera camp, was interviewed on WCSH-TV's "207" along with USM's composer in residence, Daniel Sonenberg. Bailey presented more background for how the students created the libretto and their motivation behind the storyline: "We wanted to talk about something relevant," said Bailey, 13, and when asked how she hopes her peers respond to the performance, she said, "...I hope they see it and realize that you can overcome anything...and feel more confident."
In a Maine Today article Bob Keyes described the performance as "a powerful and timely message," and The Forecaster also shared more details of the experience of the young girls who put the libretto together. National opera blog "Opera Wire," also promoted the performance with their news post in March.
"The girls bonded quickly and were empowered by the idea of being able to share what was on their mind,” said Marjolaine Whittlesey, from The Telling Room, “I invited them to dig into the realities of being a teenager today. They all agreed on the theme of voicelessness and built their characters and plot line around that."
“I attended a live read-through of the libretto, and I knew that this was going to be something special. It captured my imagination from the start. Each character has his or her own music...Somehow all these pieces came together to make the composing of the thing a joyful experience,” said Sonenberg.
The opera is composed of five principal singers, a small chorus, and orchestrated for piano and small percussion. Rachel Shukan, a senior voice performance major, debuted the lead role of “Girl.” Shukan, a soprano, has performed in several USM opera productions and also with Opera Maine. She’s also earned several vocal awards, including being selected as a 2018 USM Concerto Competition and Honors Recital winner.
"It has been so inspiring to work with these talented teenagers from our community, who wrote an incredible story, and to see it brought to life through Dan Sonenberg’s composition and the performance of the USM School of Music singers,” said Caroline Koelker, Executive Director, Opera Maine. “Opera Maine is excited to share this opera that was truly ‘born of our community’ with all who attend the performances."
Professor Ellen Chickering, USM School of Music, said, "I find this project very creative, to make an opera come alive that has never been performed before! The students and I worked together to make the visual and aural aspects true to the composer's and librettists' creative process."
USM Opera Workshop Student Performers in "Girl in Six Beats:"
GIRL: Rachel Shukan, senior Voice Performance major
MOTHER: Christie Paul, second-year Performance major
OBLIVION: Miles Obrey, first-year Performance major
REINCARNATION: Nicole Ponte, second-year Voice Performance major
SLUSHIE GUY: David Myers, Jr., second-year graduate student, Vocal Pedagogy major
ENSEMBLE: Adams Carney, first-year Performance major; Brennan Corcoran, first-year Performance major; Lynnea Harding, third-year Bachelor of Arts major; Katherine Leahy, Bachelor of Arts major; Jared Vigue, first-year Performance major.
The libretto was written by Telling Room students Ella Briman, 14, Cape Elizabeth High School; Myah Garrison, 16, from Maine Coast Waldorf; Makena Deveraux, 16, Cape Elizabeth High School; Zoe Sliwinski, 14, Scarborough High School; Emelia Bailey, 12, Gorham Middle School; Kaspar Wilder, 16, Portland High School; Emily Greene, 12, St. Bridget School.