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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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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Nell’s Taos Residency and Opera Performances

Posted in awards, performances on May 27th, 2016 by Nell

Nell filming at Ranchos de Taos in 2010I first visited Taos in June 2010 while filming my multimedia piece The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape. On that trip, I spent a night at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House: a historic home turned into a B&B.

It was there that my interest in Luhan, a memoirist and influential patron of the arts, was first piqued. Who was this glamorous, eccentric character who attracted Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, and countless other Modernist luminaries to her salons?

And wouldn’t she be a fantastic subject for an opera?

Fast forward to 2016. I am honored to have been awarded a Residency Grant from The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico—an arts colony in Taos, where I will be for most of June through August. During this time, I’ll be working primarily on my opera based on the life and memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan.

I’m thrilled beyond words to have the privilege of spending ten weeks living and working in this artistic haven, situated in the scenic multicultural environment of Taos that inspired many of my favorite works of art and formed the heart of Luhan’s life and legacy.

Harwood Museum of Art. Photo: Drew Flack.

Following this residency, my opera-in-progress will receive two exciting showcases in two very different venues!

On August 12, I will present an evening of excerpts from my opera in piano score at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. Visit the Museum’s website for more information.Cover of New Mexico Magazine May 2016 This event will be presented in connection with Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West, a major traveling exhibition that explores Luhan’s impact on the art, writings, and activism of 20th century American Modernism.

The exhibit, and my opera, just received some great coverage in New Mexico Magazine.

Back in New York City, this same project will be featured on AOP’s Six Scenes on September 30 & October 2—the culminating performance of Composers & the Voice.

Six Scenes will feature excerpts from six operas by the emerging composer and librettist fellows in the Composers & the Voice program. After the outstanding performances on the First Glimpse concert earlier this month (recordings forthcoming), I can’t wait to hear what AOP’s resident ensemble of singers and music directors will do with my score.

Bringing Mabel Dodge Luhan to Life through Opera
August 12, 2016, 5:30pm
Harwood Museum of Art
238 Ledoux Street, Taos, NM 87571
More information

Composers & the Voice: Six Scenes
September 30 & October 2, 2016, 8:00pm
South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217
More information

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Nell Awarded Composers & the Voice Fellowship by American Opera Projects

Posted in awards on July 24th, 2015 by Nell

Composers & the Voice 2015-17 Training Fellows Graphic by American Opera Projects

I am absolutely thrilled and honored to have been selected by American Opera Projects to participate in the eighth season of their renowned Composers & the Voice fellowship program!

Directed by conductor Steven Osgood (The Metropolitan Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, et al), this program gives emerging composers and librettists experience working collaboratively with singers on writing for the voice and contemporary opera stage.

The two-year fellowships, made possible through a generous grant by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, include a year of working with the company’s Resident Ensemble of Singers and Artistic Team at AOP’s home base in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, followed by a year of continued promotion and development through AOP and its strategic partnerships.

You’ll be able to hear my work in May 2016 at First Glimpse, AOP’s bi-annual concert of songs written in the C&V workshops. A second concert in September 2016 will showcase full opera scenes created by the composers over the summer.

Check out AOP’s official announcement to learn more about C&V and the accomplished group of artists I’ll have the privilege of joining this fall. I look forward to sharing the products of this program with you over the coming months and years!

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NYU Symphony to Premiere “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock” on March 3

Posted in art and music, awards, performances on February 6th, 2014 by Nell
Tom Killion, "Point Reyes from Chimney Rock", 2012. Used with permission of the artist.

Tom Killion, “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock”, 2012.
Used by permission of the artist.

UPDATE: The recording of this performance is now available, below!

As Composer-in-Residence with the NYU Symphony, I will receive the honor of having a newly commissioned work for orchestra, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, premiered on Monday, March 3, 8:00pm at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, New York, NY, the preeminent venue for the presentation of cultural and performing arts events for NYU and lower Manhattan. The concert will also include works by Britten, Tchaikovsky, and my colleague Kyle Tieman-Strauss.

While Point Reyes is my sixth composition for large ensemble, it’s the first to be publicly performed. I hope some of you will be able to share this special moment with me.

About the Music

A tone poem inspired by the coastal landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area where I was born and raised, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock takes its title from a woodblock print by contemporary artist Tom Killion (www.tomkillion.com), which I received as gift from my parents in Summer 2013.

The print depicts a view of Point Reyes, the peninsula jutting into the ocean north of San Francisco, from which the rugged Pacific can be seen on one side of the rocky, grass-frosted land mass, and Drake’s Bay on the other. Wild irises and grasses in the foreground appear to tremble in a brisk wind, while the water’s horizon and a looming orange-red sky stretch far into the distance.

Killion’s artwork, along with my personal experiences walking in this and similar environs on the Point Reyes National Seashore, informed the sound world I strove to create within the orchestra. This landscape is broad and sweeping on the large scale, yet delicate and intimate in the details; it is bold yet ethereal, in both sunshine and fog. My love and yearning for this place is embedded in the music.

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Nell Selected for Residency with NYU Symphony

Posted in awards on November 5th, 2013 by Nell

NYU logoI am thrilled to announce that I have recently been named Composer-in-Residence by the New York University Symphony, along with two of my colleagues. This is the highest honor offered by NYU to concert music composition students.

I will writing a new work for orchestra to be premiered on a public concert by the NYU Symphony at the Skirball Center in New York on March 3, 2014. Stay posted for details!

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Nell Awarded Grant from NYU Steinhardt for Multimedia Project

Posted in awards, John Muir's Yosemite on May 10th, 2013 by Nell

John MuirMy forthcoming multimedia project Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite through Music, Video and New Media was recently selected to receive the Undergraduate and Master’s Students Research/Creative Project Award through the Challenge Grant program at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite will be an online installation and live performance weaving together a song cycle for soprano and piano with original video, photographs, and literary selections exploring naturalist John Muir’s experiences in Yosemite National Park at the turn of the 20th century. The audience will be invited to inhabit, re-imagine, re-invigorate, and share in John Muir’s vision of nature as a source of spiritual and creative inspiration.

This summer I will be traveling to Yosemite National Park to collect footage and photographs for this project. Stay tuned for updates!

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My Dream Scholarship… is a Reality.

Posted in awards on May 25th, 2012 by Nell
I learned this week that I’ve been chosen to receive the nation’s most generous independent scholarship for graduate studies in the arts. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a private foundation established in 2000 by Jack Kent Cooke to help exceptionally promising students with financial need reach their full potential through education. The Foundation has taken an amazing vote of confidence in my future by selecting me to be one of this year’s 15 recipients of the Graduate Arts Award.
JKCF Graduate Arts Award

JKCF Graduate Arts Award

The Award covers cost of attendance in a graduate degree program for up to $50,000 per year for three years (extending to multiple degrees as needed). It’s given to college students or recent graduates with significant financial need who will pursue a graduate or professional degree in the visual arts, performing arts, or creative writing.

Candidates for the scholarship must be nominated by a faculty representative at their undergraduate institution. Each college or university may nominate up to two candidates. I was nominated by NEC’s Provost and Dean, Thomas Novak, and recommended by Chair of Composition, Michael Gandolfi, and Chair of Liberal Arts, Patrick Keppel. A review panel of distinguished artists, arts faculty, and university administrators selected the recipients using criteria including artistic or creative merit, academic achievement, financial need, will to succeed, and a breadth of interests and activities.
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I’ve Graduated from NEC… with the Chadwick Medal in Tow!

Posted in awards on May 25th, 2012 by Nell
Nell Receives NEC's Chadwick Medal

Nell Receives NEC's Chadwick Medal. Photo by Jeff Thiebauth.

President Tony Woodcock Presents Nell with Her Diploma.

NEC's President Tony Woodcock Presents Nell with Her Diploma. Photo by Jeff Thiebauth.

At Commencement, I was thrilled to be presented with the George Whitefield Chadwick Medal: the highest honor bestowed upon an undergraduate at NEC. The Chadwick Medal recipient is selected by members of NEC’s faculty and administration and is presented “to a graduating senior whose entire record of achievement has been most distinguished in the candidates major field, supplementary studies, extracurricular activities, and good citizenship” (according to the Commencement program).

The Chadwick medal is one of several honors that the Conservatory has presented me with–including the Presser Scholar Award, which was announced at the Convocation ceremony last fall and was accompanied by a $4,800 prize.