The local arts organizations are putting faith in their new production, “The Flood.”
Outside the Southern Theatre, the skies are gray and threatening rain. Inside, nearly a dozen singers and actors are preparing to recreate a real-life tragedy brought on by too much rain: the 1913 flood that killed 93 people and devastated Franklinton.
It's a Friday afternoon in early May, and Opera Columbus and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra are hosting a workshop performance of “The Flood,” a new opera based on that disaster. It's the first-ever collaboration between the two arts groups. Soon, faithful supporters wander in, accept wine or bottled water from volunteers and settle in for a sneak peek of a work that won't premiere until February.
In front of them, Opera Columbus artistic director Peggy Kriha Dye prepares to offer introductory remarks. Meanwhile, a longtime patron turns to the stranger sitting next to him and recalls that the troupe's last new opera commissioned for the main stage, called “Vanqui,” largely disappeared following its 1999 premiere. That work faded because it featured a relentlessly downbeat approach that was trendy, he says, clearly hoping the new opera won't suffer the same fate.
No such worries appear to afflict Janet Chen, executive director of ProMusica, who is standing off to one side and grinning broadly. She finally surrenders to her excitement and breaks into a brief, ecstatic jig.
Looking back on the workshop a couple of weeks later, Chen doesn't recall the impromptu dance but agrees she was enthusiastic. “Commissioning [a new work] is very exciting,” she says. So is presenting a workshop, she adds, because it gives interested audience members “a chance to see how you get to the final product.” In fact, the May workshop is already the production's second, the first having been held last November at Opera America's National Opera Center in New York.
Chen's excitement also stems from the people involved in the project. She's co-producing the work with Dye, her longtime friend, while the music is being written by Korine Fujiwara, a local composer who's tackling her first opera. Adding a healthy dose of international stature is renowned director and music educator Stephen Wadsworth, who is both directing the production and writing the libretto, the opera's lyrics. Wadsworth signed on after being asked by Dye, who studied under him at the Manhattan School of Music and now claims him as her mentor.
“He wrote a libretto with Leonard Bernstein,” Dye says proudly, referring to the 1983 opera “A Quiet Place.” “He's directed many things on Broadway as well. So I just thought I'd throw it out there and ask him, and he said yes.”
Wadsworth was inclined to accept because he admires the innovative approach his former student has brought to Opera Columbus. “She has a kind of vision and an idea about presenting work that is not in the usual regional-opera box,” he says. Nevertheless, Wadsworth didn't agree to take on the project until he'd had time to study the historic tragedy behind it and decide whether he could find a dramatic angle.
As revealed at the May workshop, his approach was to divide the action among four years (1913, 1940, 1970 and 2014) and three families that were affected by the Franklinton flood. The characters include a flood victim and her husband, as well as a German immigrant, an African-American maid and a mental patient suffering from a long-ago trauma. Marital infidelity plays a major role in the hourlong tale as it jumps back and forth among the eras.
“It's all invented—it's a story,” Wadsworth explains following the workshop. “But it's based in part on the experience of the flood.” For example, the opera reveals that some flood survivors sought refuge in a nearby mental institution that was located on higher ground.
Will the new work, unlike 1999's “Vanqui,” enjoy widespread success beyond its Columbus premiere? Dye says there are several reasons for optimism, including Wadsworth's fame and the fact that Fujiwara is a woman, as there is a current push to dismantle historic roadblocks faced by women in the music industry. “I think people are more willing than not to champion a woman composer right now.”
Mainly, though, Dye puts her faith in the work itself. “I think it's good music, and I think the story is compelling,” she says, “whether you're from Columbus or not.”
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Photo captions: Stephen Wadsworth directs performers at a May workshop for an opera based on the flood of 1913. An archival image shows the flood's aftermath in Franklinton.
Photo credits: Tim Johnson; Dispatch archive