Cantanti Project Redefines Opera with World Premiere of Tabula Rasa
By Lauren Johnson
When someone says “let’s go to the opera,” the first thing that might pop into your head is Carmen – or perhaps Madame Butterfly. More often than not, your mind will turn to the established canon of classical opera characters – the word itself inspires visions of Wagner’s thunderous Viking, Brünnhilde, with her pigtails and helmet standing center stage and belting out arias in a language foreign to your own.
One image opera does not usually evoke is flappers in drop-waist dresses, in the heart of the vibrant modern art scene of the early 20th Century.
Enter the latest production of the Cantanti Project, Tabula Rasa, an original work created by librettist and stage director Bea Goodwin and composer Felix Jarrar. Tabula Rasa is the real-life story of Dada artist Man Ray and his muse, Kiki di Montparnasse, in a feminist jazz opera set in 1920s Paris. As a member of the New York Opera Alliance, which organizes an annual Opera Fest showcasing the breadth and diversity of opera in New York City, the Cantanti Project was able to feature Tabula Rasa as a part of the 2018 Opera Fest, with performances on May 4, 5, 11, and 12.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down the Joyce Yin, the Artistic Director of the Cantanti Project, and two of Tabula Rasa’s leading ladies – Sara Lin Yoder (Kiki di Montparnasse) and Rebecca Richardson (Lee Miller). Over a coffee near The Blue Building – Tabula’s performance venue in Midtown Manhattan – we discussed everything from Tabula Rasa’s world premiere to what it’s like to originate a role, Victoria’s Secret and the male gaze, and how new feminism inspired by the #MeToo movement in some ways shaped their interpretations of Tabula Rasa.
Q: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy rehearsal schedules to meet with me, ladies! My first question is for Joyce. As Artistic Director of the Cantanti Project, what drew you to this particular work? What inspired you to include Tabula Rasa in the Cantanti Project’s season, and what are you hoping that people will get from it?
Joyce: That is an awesome question. The reason why the Cantanti Project is is doing Tabula Rasa is actually because of [our relationship] with director Bea Goodwin. We’ve worked with her before, she was our stage director for an opera the previous season, and she was going to stage direct the opera in our current season. I really believe in her artistry, and in how she’s able to tell a story in a way that really reaches an audience’s heart. She’s very gifted in that way, and Tabula Rasa was something she was very excited about. So when she came to us with this idea, that’s why we said, okay. As for the second part of your question – what do I hope people get out of this? SO many things! I mean, this work really is beautiful, and aside from the historical importance of having Kiki be able to tell her story and to be more than just a woman in a picture, I feel like it’s incredibly exciting for young, upcoming artists to really flex their muscle and to show what they’re capable of. That is inspiring for me and I think it can be very inspiring for anyone who comes to see the show – to see this is something new, this is something that is SO moving, and this is what we need to keep doing as humanity, to keep creating stuff like this.
Q: What about you, Sara Lin and Rebecca? What drew you guys to Tabula Rasa and inspired you to try out for your respective roles?
Sara Lin: Bea actually wrote the role with me in mind – in fact, the music for Kiki was all written to myc vocal tendencies. She actually approached me about it last summer, so that’s how I got involved.
Rebecca: I worked with Bea last summer with Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, and I remember her talking about this new project. With Bea being Bea, I was like “I’m sure it’s brilliant, sounds amazing!” but that was all at that point. Then, I linked up with Joyce later on and was like “so tell me about the Cantanti Project, how do you go about auditioning for one of its productions? And until I applied to audition for the Cantanti Project, I don’t think Bea even knew that I was interested in Tabula Rasa. I really just applied to the Cantanti Project wanting to be involved in whatever they might be doing. I mean, I kept my fingers crossed hoping that it would be Tabula, just because working with Bea is unlike anything else you’ve ever done.
Q: Can you elaborate on why it’s such an amazing experience to work with Bea?
Rebecca: She always has such wonderful energy – you’re excited to work with her, you’re excited to go into rehearsal – every time. She’s really good at challenging you, and making you really prepared so that you really know your stuff, and show up very prepared. But also, she makes it a place where you can feel okay being vulnerable, and you feel okay taking big risks and maybe going too far. Do you agree with that?
Sara Lin: Oh yeah!
Rebecca: You really feel like you’re the best performer you can be when you’re around her.
Sara Lin: And Bea is unique to the opera world, because she’s not a singer, she’s an actor and a writer, so she comes from the theater world. She’s a really good actress herself. So to have her perspective on characters, and really going in depth with the text and the writing and all of that is really refreshing in the opera world, because a lot of times we get directors that do what we call “park and bark” – where they’re just like “walk to your spot on the stage and sing your aria” – that’s it. And that is NOT Bea.
Joyce: With Bea, you HAVE to be prepared—prepared to bring your ideas, and to hear the direction and the vision that she has, and you need to then take your ideas and execute them. So someone who didn’t think about it in advance, they could actually have a very hard time trying to bring the life and the energy that Bea is looking for. Because unlike some other opera directors, for Bea it’s not just about “well where do you stand” – it’s really about the character, and what’s motivating them, and what quirks they have, and what part of their story they’re trying to tell. So when you, as a performer, have done your homework and done your research and bring your ideas – when you get in the same room with Bea, that’s when really magical things happen.
Q: Speaking of doing your homework, how did you ladies prepare for your roles? How much did you know about Dada Art and your characters beforehand, and what was involved in your research process?
Becky: I knew nothing about Lee Miller [the lover/muse who eventually replaces Kiki] beforehand – I didn’t even know who she was. The Man Ray/Kiki art I had seen, I was fairly familiar with that – I feel like those are in any art history book. But luckily, there’s SO much information on Lee, that it was really easy. Her son made this whole website database of stuff – all her pictures and random tidbits of information, and these really cute questions like “What did Lee like to eat for breakfast?” Stuff like that. And obviously I learned a lot just by studying and really spending a lot of time with the artwork itself.
Joyce: Bea actually has a picture of herself standing with Lee Miller’s son. We keep saying “1920s Paris” but it really wasn’t that long ago. And what Becky was saying about how there are all these pictures and all these images—that’s what we know. We don’t know the people behind it. Which is why this story, this opera, is so fascinating – we’ve seen all of these pictures in museums and in history books, but now we are telling the story of the actual people behind it all.
Q: Sara Lin – how did you prepare for the role of Kiki?
Sara Lin: So obviously pictures were a huge thing, and just her work overall with all of the artists at the time like Foujita, and Kisling – just studying a huge database of Kiki pictures. She was also a painter herself, so I dug into that a little bit. She wrote her own memoirs, which were banned in the US until the 70s because they were very juicy, very sexy. But they’re also interesting because she was only educated until the age of 11 or 12 when she moved to Paris to work. As such, her writing is really rough. Hemingway actually wrote the forward to her memoirs, which just kind of explained “This is Kiki, and I don’t really know how well this is going to translate into English, but in French, it’s really kinda rough!” So I dug into her past a lot, her childhood, her relationship (or non-relationship) with her father, and how that relates to her relationship with Man Ray. I also looked at her relationships with the women in her family – her grandmother basically raised her, and her mother really didn’t like that she was a model and making money from men painting her into art.
Q: Tabula Rasa positions itself as an extremely relevant work in today’s political and social landscape. What are some of the themes that you think audience members should be paying attention to and can learn from, and how are they applicable to today’s day and age?
Sara Lin: I think for me it’s this idea of men projecting what they want to see on a woman, and then somehow putting it back on us in society. I mean like literally painting us how they want to see us, not how we want to see ourselves
Joyce: I think an example of this would be Victoria’s Secret. WHO is that store for? You walk in there and it’s like – is this store for me to shop in and to feel good about my body, or is this store for someone else to be looking at and enjoying and experiencing?
Sara Lin: Because it’s definitely not about comfort.
Joyce: We’re in this moment in time where finally it’s like, “Oh wait, women can say – I mean actually SAY – what’s happening to them” –
Sara Lin: – and be believed.
Joyce: Yeah, and maybe sometimes be believed. There’s also this notion that a woman’s identity doesn’t have to be defined in relationship to a man’s identity. Like, Kiki can be Kiki, and Kiki can be an artist herself, not just the person that was photographed and painted by someone else. Not Victoria’s Secret, but Kiki’s Secret, if you will.
Rebecca: I love how one of the goals of this show is to talk more about the women involved in creating art at that time. You know, when you study the whole Dada Movement, you think about all of the men artists, and you don’t talk about how many women were creating as well. All of those faces behind these photos and this art? They were very much involved in the projects too, they were part of that project.
Sara Lin: Kiki actually left Man Ray at the end. As a muse, it was pretty unique for a muse to walk away from a famous artist – that never happens. Usually the artists kick out the muse like “okay bye.”
Q: Switching to a more technical question, I know that in this particular work the performers actually move the audience around the set. I have to admit, I’ve never been to a play or an opera where I’ve been the one to move…
Sara Lin: Me neither!
Q: So how are you ladies preparing for that, and what is it like to rehearse knowing that the audience will literally be moving spaces throughout the performance?
Sara Lin: If you could see Becky’s face…
Rebecca: It’s really hard to tell without an actual audience. I think that’s the biggest challenge I’m having conceptualizing it, because I’ve never done this before and so without an audience there it’s really hard to gauge the timing of it all. The timing is huge, because those musical interludes are only so long…but I think this work has to be done this way, in the space that it’s in. It has to be immersive for it to come across as powerfully as it will.
Sara Lin: I am SO glad I’m not the one moving the audience! I’m kinda like, “I’ll just go where I need to go..!” But it’s little things that I think about, like maybe on one night there will be a person who is handicapped or doesn’t move as quickly as the rest of the group – how do we make them feel comfortable, and fully experience what we’re doing? Because we want that for everyone. So it’s going to be a challenge, but with the cast and the creative team, it will be fine.
Joyce: The Cantanti Project is very much an organization that says “Let’s try it and see what happens!” The artists that we have involved in the show embody that spirit as well. Thankfully, no one is a diva going around saying “These are my requirements, I only work under these conditions…” It’s all very exploratory.
Rebecca: Bea would not put up with divas either.
Joyce: Exactly! Thankfully, the spirit of willingness to try is definitely there with everyone who’s involved. Everyone has kind of said “alright, let’s see what happens, it’s live theater!” I think a lot of people are looking for ways for opera to not feel stuffy, and to not feel boring, and to not just be the same thing over and over again. There are different ways of trying to find that intrigue or that energy, and some of it is by doing site-specific things, and some of it is by really including the audience much more than in a traditional theater setting.
Q: For those who don’t know much about the opera world, it’s been said that Tabula Rasa is extremely accessible – you don’t have to be a musicologist or write your thesis on Wagner to enjoy it.
Rebecca: It will feel like an opera in the way that an opera is supposed to feel. What I mean by that is that opera creates this kind of larger-than-life scenario, and because of that, it reaches you in a very big way. And hopefully, it leaves a big impact on you, and gets something in your soul somewhere. It doesn’t have all the extra stuff around it that maybe contributes to why some people don’t like it.
Sara Lin: It’s very accessible. The tunes are SO catchy.
Rebecca: They will definitely get stuck in your head
Sara Lin: Which doesn’t happen with opera. It happens with old opera, but not the new stuff.
Q: Speaking of old opera, what was it like originating a role, and how is that different for you guys in terms of the creative process than doing something that’s already been written hundreds of years ago?
Sara Lin: I love it. You’re the only one that has ever done it before, so all of the vocal nuances, all of the little character traits, they can be written in the moment. Felix and Bea are really good about incorporating my own ideas into Kiki. When you do an old opera, you have all these recordings of previous performers in the role, and all of these pre-conceived ideas about what the character should be, even though maybe that’s not what’s best for yourself or for the audience at the time with whatever is happening in today’s society. So creating something from scratch is great for us as singers and the audience.
Rebecca: I’ve never premiered a role before. The really cool thing about this project in particular, which doesn’t always happen, is that when I was cast in it, they hadn’t written it yet. They had an idea of what they wanted and they knew what characters they were going to have, but the score did not physically exist yet. And so because of that, my role was written for my voice. Which is like, the best case scenario, right? It’s like, “Oh Bea and Felix know which notes feel good, and what doesn’t sound so good, and they won’t write any of that?” So everyone feels their best, everyone feels very comfortable with what they’re singing. And because of that, we don’t have to worry so much about super difficult technical stuff as much, and we have more time to focus on making a show out of it, making it a theatrical experience.
Q: So how does the Cantanti Project fit into the overall scene of Tabula Rasa’s world premiere? What is the Cantanti Project’s role in the process and how do you help facilitate it?
Joyce: This is a very untraditional partnership/collaboration, because they pitched the idea to us – we didn’t go looking for it. The Cantanti Project is in its fourth season now, but we are a grassroots “alright we wanna make art, let’s see how we can do it” type of ensemble. Bea and Felix actually wanted full artistic and creative control, so I really can’t take any credit for the artistry of it. I’m really just here to support them, and to encourage them, and to try and share this special process with as many people as I can. We provide some infrastructure in terms of helping hold auditions and doing some marketing and some press, but I feel like I’m like a very humbled and honored friend, who’s watching this come together. This is the first time our organization has done ANYTHING like this – we do recitals, concerts, and operas, but we’ve never done a new work before, so this was a huge adventure for us. Really, the reason why we said yes was because Bea had so much conviction and so much love for this work and wanted to tell this story so badly. This is their baby, this was their vision, and the Cantanti Project is here to help it actually happen. It’s really tough making any kind of art, whether it’s mounting something that’s more traditional that’s been done a lot of times, or mounting something new – it really takes a village of people.
Q: Any last thoughts you’d like to add, or something you’d like to tell your audience to prepare them for the show?
Rebecca: Come with an open mind and without preconceived expectations – either of what this opera will be, of what interactive means – I think it’s a very unique show. So come as a blank slate! As best you can. I think that will allow you to enjoy it the most, that’s how you will really get the most out of it.
Joyce: I hope composers and librettists and singers and instrumentalists and artist of all mediums will see Tabula Rasa and be inspired to try new things – don’t do something just because it’s always been done that way. Also, one last thing that I did want to add was that the Cantanti Project asked that the majority of the roles in Tabula Rasa be for female singers. There are a LOT of female singers auditioning, yet the number of female opera roles is tiny compared to the number of male opera roles – yet less men try out, so the numbers are disproportionate. There are male roles and interesting male characters with great music in Tabula Rasa, but in a nice reversal of things, it’s not about them. Like FINALLY, you know? And I think that’s really important, and something that I’m really proud of. Because sometimes you feel like a system sucks, or it’s broken, and you wonder, “Well, what can I do?” And I’m really proud that we as an organization – we did something about it! We really did something about it. And we have special and talented and giving artists who are part of this, and I’m just so humbled and so honored that they were willing to take a risk on a new, unknown, untried, mysterious project like this, and I think it’s really going to pay off, and the audience is going to see that.
You can purchase tickets to see the world premiere of Tabula Rasa on May 4, 5, 11, and 12 here.
To learn more about the Cantanti Project and how they support emerging artists, click here.