"What does it have to do with me?" That question has probably kept many people of color away from opera.
It's understandable, given that the subject matter comes mostly from the perspectives of white European men of past centuries who often dealt with race and culture in wince-inducing ways.
To Minnesota Opera's credit, the company decided to open up the process of creating new operas. Last fall it put out a call for Minnesota-based teams to develop mini-operas — "MNiatures," about 10 minutes in length — with increased diversity and inclusion among its goals.
For a field where works-in-progress can remain in progress for years, this was a whirlwind process. Some composers and librettists met for the first time in November — and starting Friday they will have their completed pieces streamed for two weeks.
"I applied, thinking that I'd be working alone," Nichloson said. "I was asked if I'd be interested in working with Asako, and I've loved working with her."
Both have degrees from esteemed New York City colleges. Harpsichordist and composer Hirabayashi holds a doctorate from New York's Juilliard School, while singer-songwriter Nichloson has a master's in playwriting from Columbia University.
Together, they created "Dear America, Beat Your Heart Defiantly, Naked & Open With Love" (available Feb. 5-19). It's built around a series of letters written by Nichloson, exploring how the pandemic has encouraged reflection. Nichloson's words and melodies became more complex and layered with the help of Hirabayashi's orchestrations — and harpsichord.
"It was a good match that this ancient instrument was accompanying singing about a digital landscape," Nichloson said. "I like that dichotomy."
"I'm a classical musician with structure and detail," Hirabayashi said. "But she's very natural."
By contrast, another creative team knew each other well. Kashimana Ahua and Khary Jackson are a pair of polymaths who have performed together as Kash and Khary. Ahua is a composer, producer and teaching artist who grew up in Nigeria and Kenya, while Jackson is a poet, playwright, dancer, musician and winner of fellowships from the McKnight and Jerome foundations.
Their creative process had them thinking big.
"We have approximately 10 minutes to delve into something," Jackson said. "What kind of stories would we have in mind to tell? The 'Karen' story is what we settled on: The prevalence of stories we've heard in recent years of some white, female-presenting person taking initiative to start stuff with people of color for their own reasons.
"In Black culture, we can make a joke out of anything, and that's what we do with this situation. But this is a very serious situation. It gave an opportunity to look at the history of racism over all the time we've been in this country. For the sake of being concise in a short period of time, let's stick to the last 100 years. Which also sounds hilarious to say. Looking at how that dynamic changed over time, from the 1920s when people could be lynched as a form of entertainment. … Ultimately, we chose stories from 1920, 1970 and 2020."
The music they created for "Don't Tread on Me: A Century of Racism" is informed by the soundscapes of each period. It's available from Feb. 16 through March 2.
"I'd always wanted to write an opera," Ahua said. "But I always wondered if that was my lane. When this came along, I said, 'An opera? Yes, please.' "
"I really appreciate the freedom the cohort was given," Jackson added. "They said: 'Do you.'
"And I'm so excited to see the other two pieces, which are doing really striking visual things. Really striking. In ways that may not have been seen in opera before."
One of those is "Chim Lac (Lost Bird)," available Feb. 9-23. Oanh Vu is a puppeteer and filmmaker who has created a shadow puppet opera with composer, video producer and visual artist Charlie McCarron. With a musical score that blends Asian and Western tonalities, it follows a young woman in mourning as she's transported to the Vietnam of her grandmother's younger days.
Also employing Asian musical elements is "Xylem," created by composer/anthropologist Ritika Ganguly and storyteller/visual artist Roshan Ganu. Ganguly's music mixes classical traditions of Europe with those of India and Bangladesh, while Ganu's designs employ found materials. The stop-motion animated production involves a storytelling tree and its python partner (Feb. 12-26).
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org