Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco “Song of Houston” Initiative Commissions Nell Shaw Cohen to Write Chamber Opera for Premiere in 2021

Posted in awards, Rodeo Opera on August 18th, 2017 by Nell


The Barrel Racer” by Eric Ward is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes, dreams do come true.

These past few years, I’ve focused increasingly on vocal music and opera—and I’ve been fortunate to have access to workshops, residencies, and fellowships that have moved me towards becoming a better artist and building a career as an opera creator. I completed my first dramatic work, monodrama The Coming of Spring, in 2014, and finished my first full chamber opera, Mabel’s Call, this past summer.

A big question, of course, has remained: How could I make that leap from writing “on spec” and workshopping operas-in-development to securing a premiere production by a professional company? Or, for that matter, having an opera commissioned?

Then, one day, HGOco—the community collaboration and education arm of Houston Grand Opera—loved the proposal I wrote with my collaborator to create a “feminist rodeo opera” (more on that below!) for their award-winning Song of Houston initiative, which has been commissioning new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston since 2007. Their open call for proposals opened a big door for me.

HGOco has awarded me a commission to compose a 60-80 minute one act opera, which will receive a full production in March 2021 with five soloists and an eight-piece chamber ensemble.

Dream. Come. True.

Megan Cohen

As if that weren’t wonderful enough, I get to write this opera with the brilliant Megan Cohen—one of the most-produced playwrights under 35 and an emerging opera librettist, recently commissioned by Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. She also happens to be my sister.

(As far as I know, Megan and I might be the first ever professional composer-librettist team of sisters!)

HGOco commissions works that reflect the Houston experience. Our original story, which will be informed by interviews with contemporary Texans, offers a feminist perspective on rodeo culture: “Small-town barrel racing champion Shayla Taylor and her sponsor, powerful businesswoman Jamie Mendoza, aim for a big win at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When a bronc rider with a tragic past threatens Shayla’s career-defining race, the women discover each other’s strength in adversity with the help of a spirited rodeo queen.”

Over the next few years, Megan and I will be making frequent trips to Houston for dramaturgical research and workshops as we develop the libretto and score.

I am BEYOND thrilled and honored for the opportunity to create work for HGOco. I can’t wait to bring this opera to life and share it with an audience!

For more information about HGOco’s commissions, which also include an exciting project from composer Nkeiru Okoye and librettist Anita Gonzalez, check out the press release on BroadwayWorld.com.

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Page 73 Summer Yale Residency with playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen

Posted in Uncategorized on August 16th, 2017 by Nell

Page 73 Summer Residency group. Photo by Page 73.

I recently had the honor of participating as a guest artist in Page 73‘s week-long Summer Residency on the Yale campus in New Haven, CT, workshopping a wonderful new play by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen with the all-star team of director Jessi Hill and actors Moe Angelos, Isabel Arraiza, Maya Sharpe, and Jade Wu. We lived and worked alongside artists developing three other projects, sharing readings of new work and exchanging ideas over daily group dinners.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen invited me to collaborate on his play THE BETTERMENT SOCIETY after we’d worked together in New Dramatists’ Composer-Librettist Studio last winter. We’ve written a song for voice and guitar that is threaded throughout the structure of the play and creates a musical-dramatic arc for one the three women at the center of Deen’s narrative. The song was previously workshopped as part of a reading with director Jessi Hill at New Dramatists, and will receive further development on another reading in New York City this fall. I look forward to seeing where this project leads!

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“Mabel’s Call” at University of New Mexico in 2018

Posted in Mabel's Call, performances, Uncategorized on June 21st, 2017 by Nell

The University of New Mexico Logo

I’m very honored to announce that the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque will be presenting a full-length workshop of my opera Mabel’s Call—with the full score for six soloists, chorus, and seven-piece chamber ensemble—as UNM Opera Theatre’s Fall 2018 semester production! I can’t wait to work with stage director Leslie Umphrey, music director Kristin Ditlow, and their talented students, as UNM Opera Theatre Composer-in-Residence. Performance dates TBA.

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“Mabel’s Call” opera event on June 18 in Taos, NM

Posted in Mabel's Call, performances on June 1st, 2017 by Nell

Ad for Mabel's Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music
On June 18, 2016, the Mayor of Taos, New Mexico declared the first annual “Mabel Dodge Luhan Day,” to occur on the third weekend of June. He noted that “Mabel Dodge Luhan was one of, if not the most prominent and globally known resident of our community from 1918 to 1962, serving as our unofficial ambassador, mentor and host to the arts, to the outside world and to many of the most talented, influential, and well known figures of her lifetime.”

In celebration of the second annual Mabel Dodge Luhan Day weekend, the Harwood Museum of Art and The Mabel Dodge Luhan House are presenting a behind-the-scenes look at Mabel’s Call: my new chamber opera that dramatizes Luhan’s self-reinvention in Taos.

I look forward to joining leading Luhan scholar Lois Rudnick in this public conversation and opera video screening, titled Mabel’s Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music. We will screen and discuss video clips excerpted from a concert workshop performance of the opera-in-progress, which was filmed live at the Harwood Museum in 2016. I’ll be shedding light on the process of interpreting Luhan’s life and historical context through music. Audience Q&A will follow.

The event will take place Sunday, June 18, 2017, 2:00pm in the Harwood Museum of Art’s Arthur Bell Auditorium in scenic Taos. Admission is free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For venue information, visit the Harwood Museum of Art.

ABOUT THE OPERA

Inspired by the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mabel’s Call is a lyrical opera in one act scored for six soloists, chorus, and chamber ensemble, with music and libretto by Nell Shaw Cohen. A universal tale told on an intimate scale, this work probes themes of identity, love, home, spirituality, and the search for a meaningful life. The opera’s story will resonate with audiences everywhere—even while it is deeply rooted in the culture, history, and physical landscape of Taos, New Mexico in the 1910s and ‘20s. The Harwood Museum of Art and American Opera Projects have presented workshops of Mabel’s Call in Taos and New York City, respectively. To hear clips from the opera and learn more about the project, visit mabelscall.com.

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Residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM

Posted in Mabel's Call on June 1st, 2017 by Nell

View of Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.
Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.

Last year I spent ten weeks as Artist-in-Residence at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, which supports artists and the creative process by providing housing and studio space in the heart of Taos, New Mexico. I’m delighted that the foundation has invited me back for a second residency.

I look forward to returning and continuing work on Mabel’s Callmy opera inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s journey of self-reinvention in Taos during the 1910’s and ’20s. The Wurlitzer Foundation is located minutes away from Luhan’s historic home and all of the locales that were important to her life in Taos—and, consequently, my opera! It’s the perfect place to immerse myself in completing this opera-in-progress, my largest work to date, which I began researching about a year and a half ago.

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“Dai-Shizen (Great Nature)” at Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson

Posted in Landscape Music, performances on March 26th, 2017 by Nell


Chiura Obata, “Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California”

Sunday, April 2, 2017, 10:30-11:30am
Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson
80 Main St
Hudson, MA, 01749
Free and open to the public
Venue Website

A performance of Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) (2014) will be given by Gabriela Ruiz, flute, and Devin Ulibarri, guitar, at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson during a Sunday worship service on April 2, focusing on nature and environmental themes. Distribuição de flores by Heitor Villa-Lobos will also be performed.

Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for flute and guitar looks at nature through the eyes of a visual artist: Chiura Obata (1885-1975). It is my musical response to Obata’s journey through landscapes, as seen through his artworks, in three movements: California, Topaz, and Sunset.

Obata’s woodblock prints and watercolors from the 1920s and ‘30s show some of the most extraordinary visual representations of Yosemite National Park ever created, from El Capitan to Mono Lake. The natural landscapes of California were this Japanese-American immigrant’s greatest inspiration.

Obata and his family were then imprisoned for over a year in internment camps during World War II, primarily in Topaz, Utah. Despite demeaning conditions, Obata strove to bring meaning into the lives of those around him. He founded an art school with his fellow internees and created stunning, emotionally charged watercolor paintings juxtaposing the dreary manmade structures of the prison camp against broad expanses of desert, mountains, and fiery sunsets.

In composing this piece, I was particularly inspired by Obata’s ability to follow his philosophy of dai-shizen (Great Nature)—nature as a source of artistic inspiration and spiritual harmony—throughout the best and worst moments of his life.

* * *

To preview this work, watch a video of the World Premiere performance at Boston GuitarFest in 2014. To view some of the artworks by Chiura Obata that inspired my music, check out this online gallery from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Nell is named finalist for Houston Grand Opera commission

Posted in awards on March 15th, 2017 by Nell

It is a huge honor to have been selected by the Houston Grand Opera as one of eleven finalists for the 2017 Song of Houston Composer Call!

The nationally recognized Song of Houston initiative commissions new chamber operas and song projects that resonate with contemporary life in Houston and develops community projects that foster collaborations with many Houston-area organizations. Previously commissioned composers include Christopher Theofanidis, Gregory Spears, David Hanlon, and Laura Kaminsky.

Commissioned works will be announced during the summer.

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Reflection on New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio

Posted in performances on February 4th, 2017 by Nell

New Dramatists in NYC

This past winter, I had the pleasure of participating in the Composer-Librettist Studio: a two-week laboratory facilitated by Nautilus Music-Theater. This program has been filling the halls of playwright organization New Dramatists with new musical theater and opera for 33 years. (My very first composition teacher, Kim D. Sherman, was a participant in the inaugural Composer-Librettist Studio!)

On February 3, 2017, I was delighted to share the fruits of a gratifying (and exhausting) couple of weeks spent immersed in working with playwrights, performers, and composers in this deep-dive, rapid-production, hackathon-style workshop for music-theater collaborations. Collectively, we generated 25 new works in two weeks—all of which were performed in one epic afternoon.

My five collaborative music-theater works for voices and piano told the stories of a young woman captivated by a storm (Chase the Rain, written with Erin Courtney); an entomologist and a moth (Fly ’till the light’s gone, written with Sam Chanse); Edmund and The White Witch (Turkish Delight, written with Monet Hurst-Mendoza); two men ready to give up on online dating (Not Sure it’s in Me, written with Jennifer Haley); and a wanderer looking for home in the constellations (Fallen Star, written with Mashuq Mushtaq Deen).

These works were developed and performed with outstanding singer-actors Sean Cooper, Mallory Hawks, Joshua Hinck, Tim Jerome, and Lucia Rodrique, led by the brilliant and indefatigable team of facilitator-dramaturg Ben Krywosz, music director Roger Ames, and coordinator Dina Vovsi. My composer colleagues Ed Cionek, Emily Gardner Hall, Kailey Marshall, and Jonathan Russ were also inspiring to learn from and share with.

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New Videos: “Refuge” Premiere and Landscape Music Interview

Posted in Landscape Music, new recordings on November 7th, 2016 by Nell

The concert I curated for the Parrish Art Museum last September featured NYC-based chamber quartet Cadillac Moon Ensemble in a program of music written by members of the Landscape Music Composers Network celebrating the National Park Service centennial. It was tremendously gratifying to see a year’s planning come to fruition and to receive such a great audience turnout and response.

Nell in The East Hampton StarWe received coverage in several publications, including The East Hampton Star, which featured an article about my work on the front page of their Arts & Living section.

This event included the World Premiere of my wildlife conservation suite, Refuge, written for Cadillac Moon Ensemble. You can now watch the performance online!

I also had the opportunity to sit down with three fellow composers, who traveled from all around the country to participate in this event. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about the processes, goals, and challenges of writing music inspired by nature.

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“Mabel’s Call” in New York City

Posted in Mabel's Call, performances on September 26th, 2016 by Nell

Six Scenes collage image

COMPOSERS & THE VOICE: SIX SCENES

Friday, September 30 | 8:00pm
South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Tickets $10

Sunday, October 2 | 2:30 PM
National Opera Center – Rehearsal Hall
330 7th Ave, 7th floor
New York, NY 10001
Tickets $20

More Information & Tickets

An excerpt from my opera-in-progress inspired by the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan will be featured this weekend on Six Scenes: an exciting showcase presented by American Opera Projects.

This concert previews the future of opera with an evening of scenes from six operas developed during AOP’s latest season of Composers & the Voice, the Brooklyn-based fellowship training program that I’ve been privileged to participate in since Fall 2015.

Two scenes from Mabel’s Call will be performed by Tookah Sapper, soprano, as Mabel Dodge Luhan; Blake Friedman, tenor, as Maurice Sterne; and Kyle Guglielmo, baritone, as Tony Lujan, with music director Mila Henry.

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