Carnegie Mellon University
April 09, 2019

New Operas Explore Communication, Relationships Through Music

Emily Rybinski-Benish
Chris Cox

Pittsburgh Opera and Carnegie Mellon University once again are joining theatrical forces. Through the Co-Opera Program, students, alumni and faculty from CMU's School of Music, School of Drama and the Master of Arts Management (MAM) Program, a joint program between CMU's College of Fine Arts and the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy work closely with Pittsburgh Opera to create new works.

This collaboration, which occurs every two years, culminates with the premieres of three new operas at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 14 at the Pittsburgh Opera, 2425 Liberty Ave, PittsburghEach opera is approximately 25 minutes with a including a brief pause between each opera.

Composer Marina López said completing an opera in less than a year was a quick deadline to meet but that the people who worked on the shows were amazing.

"I am really honored to have be part of such an amazing group of people to put this together," López, who graduated from CMU with a master's degree in composition and also completed a one-year advanced music studies certificate program.

Lopéz's opera, "Not Our First American" is about an American in Mexico. Working with librettist Daniel Burns, the idea came from Burns' interest in health technology around the world as well as dinner discussion conversations Lopéz had with her father, who is a physician. The story and music centers around an earthquake that devastates a small town in southern Mexico. Dr. James arrives at its rural clinic to aid a disaster relief effort but finds himself out of his depth when confronted with his powerlessness against the chaos, death and poverty around him.

"The story came out that some things from my life and Daniel and I went back and forth with ideas," López said. "It speaks to our shared experience between Mexico and United States."

Lauren D'Errico, who will graduate in May with a master's of fine arts in dramatic writing, worked as the librettist on the two other operas, "Mel Rides the Bus Alone," with composer Joshua Brown, who graduated with a bachelor's of humanities and arts in technical writing and music technology and is pursuing and advanced music studies certificate in music composition; and "languagemachine" with composer Ramin Akhavijou, a graduate student in the School of Music.

"For both, I talked a lot with Ramin and Josh about their musical styles, and how my text could be supported by their composition and vice versa," D'Errico said. "Opera writing is so different for me than playwriting — in playwriting, I have as much space to say as much as I want to. But for opera, it's important to say exactly what I mean directly and still keep it poetic and interesting."

"Mel Rides the Bus Alone" tells the story of a young woman returning home to see a family from whom she has long since drifted away. Filled to the brim with anxiety and boredom, she begins to distract herself by imagining personalities for various passengers.

"Josh and I worked closely on the story from the beginning because we both had a very clear idea of what we wanted the piece to be about thematically: the magic of the mundane, a journey home, imagination," D'Errico said.

"languagemachine" explores a not-so-distant future where a waste prevention initiative called The Language Machine has been established to cut down the time people spend speaking. Amidst global institution of the initiative, a married couple struggles through their last conversation, and two operators alter their once-successful relationship when they peek inside of the machine.

All of the operas will be sung in English.

Co-Opera Collaboration

Begun in 2015, Co-Opera's purpose is to create new, short operatic works while training the next wave of opera professionals. Composers, librettists, singers, directors, designers and orchestra (from CMU Contemporary Ensemble) are chosen from the students at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Music and School of Drama. In coordination with CMU faculty and staff, Pittsburgh Opera provides professional-level guidance throughout all phases of the biennial process.

"The first two Co-Opera events were major successes," said Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn. "We are tremendously excited for this new crop of productions. It's gratifying to help develop the next generation of opera composers, librettists, producers, and singers. They are the future of our beautiful art form."

"I am so pleased that our students are able to collaborate on these fresh, new works," said Dan Martin, Stanley and Marcia Gumberg Dean of Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts. "I also am very proud of the remarkable performances that come out this partnership among these key areas of study and practice at Carnegie Mellon."

"Co-Opera makes it possible for our young artists to experience a nearly fully realized production of their emerging work, a rare opportunity for opera composers and librettists to gain some valuable feedback," adds Daniel Nesta Curtis, the artistic director of Co-Opera and the music director of Carnegie Mellon University Contemporary Music Ensemble. "It has the potential to be a stepping stone to lifelong careers for these talented and dedicated young men and women."

Co-Opera admission is free and open to the public, but a ticket is required. Capacity is limited. Tickets are available at A free artist Meet & Greet reception will take place following each of the two performances at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters.

— Related Content —