Opera Exposing Sexual Misconduct To Premiere In Columbus
Recent headlines have brought to light allegations of sexual misconduct in the arts and entertainment realm. This month, the world premiere of an opera exploring power dynamics and sexual abuse will bring the discourse on this all-too-timely subject front and center in Columbus.
The world premiere of Exposure, an opera by composer Daniel Felsenfeld and librettist and stage director Bea Goodwin, both based in New York City, will mark the third Columbus performance of Boston-based bass clarinet-marimba duo Transient Canvas and the Columbus debut of sopranos Rose Hegele and Stephanie Lamprea of Boston’s Peridot Duo Wed., March 18 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room of the Short North’s Garden Theater. Felsenfeld will give a pre-concert talk at 6 p.m. The performance is on the New Music at Short North Stage series and is supported by the Johnstone Fund for New Music.
Commissioned by Transient Canvas, the opera was created with support in from a Live Arts Boston grant from The Boston Foundation, a Cultural Investment Portfolio grant from Mass Cultural Council, the Johnstone Fund for New Music, the Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research and The Cell Theatre in New York City.
Exposure is set in New York City and charts the experiences that three young models have with a sexually coercive high-profile photographer in three different time periods – the 1970s, the 1990s and the 2010s.
“The opera is, in essence, a character study that shows the darker side of the art world, in a way,” said Transient Canvas marimbist Matt Sharrock. “It deals with concepts of consent and exploitation that happen in art, and it deals with the kind of ‘Me Too’ stuff that’s been happening for decades in the art world.”
The Johnstone Fund for New Music includes this content advisory on its Facebook event page for the March 18 Columbus performance of Exposure: “This program explores subject matter that may be sensitive to some viewers. The intent of this performance is to respectfully, openly and artistically shine a light on these topics. Parental discretion is advised.”
The opera’s libretto is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1892 novel, The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved. For decades Felsenfeld had wanted to compose a musical work based on the novel, one of Hardy’s less well-known works.
Hardy’s protagonist is a sculptor in 19th-century Britain who, at 20-year intervals, falls in love with a woman, and later her daughter and grand-daughter, all of whom he sees as the embodiment of what he calls ‘the well-beloved,’ the feminine ideal.
In adapting the novel for her libretto, Goodman shifted the geographical and temporal settings to 20th- and 21st-century New York City. She also turned Hardy’s sculptor into the photographer Aliana.
Most notably, Goodwin erased the gender divide between the characters - the photographer and her subjects are all female
“It was important for us that it wasn’t like there’s an evil man artist and all of these women come to him to be sculpted and abuse of power happens,” Goodwin said. “But I also wanted it to stand alone as an exploration of abuse of power in the art world, where we’re dealing with vulnerability, where we’re dealing with nudity, where we’re dealing with our raw, most inner part of ourselves through art.”
The dynamic characters and the changes in temporal setting are united by the recurring theme of photographic technology, which evolves over the three eras in which the opera’s action takes place, and which serves as a metaphor for the photographer’s control, manipulation and exploitation of her subjects.
“What ties all of these pieces together is one single aria, which we call the seduction aria, where the photographer speaks about the process of how film is made and how memories are captured. That is how she gets these women to become vulnerable for her, except it does not happen in the last act how we think that it is going to come out,” Goodwin said.
Sharrock says the concert performance of Exposure, with no sets and minimal lighting and costumes, will bring the audience up close with the truths of opera’s unadorned, intimate drama.
“The events that this opera portrays happen in small spaces, where people are vulnerable and cut off from everyone else. This scaled-down production makes it, I think, more intimate and fragile and real. And it is uncomfortable, and that’s part of the piece. Because normally you would not be present to such a thing,” Sharrock said.
Those who have been present to actual instances of sexual misconduct often report feeling pressure – real or imagined – not to disclose. Amid the headlines alleging high-profile instances of this type of misconduct, Zoe Johnstone, co-creator of the Johnstone Fund for New Music, says artworks like Exposure, which openly deal with the issue, carry potentially great power to change attitudes and actions.
“I think art is the only thing that can actually bring about change,” Johnstone said. “Art is creating. It shows different aspects of things, not only by protest, but by example.”
After the Columbus world premiere, Transient Canvas and the Peridot Duo will perform Exposure in May at First Church Boston and at The Cell in New York City.
And although the opera will come into the world with a small cast of performers and in small performance spaces, Goodwin says it conveys a story that many might be able to relate to.
“This opera is really purposefully called Exposure because we are so exposed as artists and as women, and this is such a nod to the women who feel that they haven’t done right, or haven’t had right done to them,” Goodwin said. “A lot of people are going to see this opera and see themselves and see their friends, and it facilitates conversation. And that’s what art should do.”