The concert originally planned for 9/14/2022
of new music performed by ENAensemble
has been rescheduled for January 25, 2023. We hope to see you there!
Beyond the Notes
Wednesday, January 25, 12:00PM
Sopranos: Megnot Toggia, Marcelle McGurik, & Ayanna Freelon
Flute: Chelsey Meynig
Guitar: Thomas Schuttenhelm
Cello: Leigh Brown
Conductor: Evan Kassof
With new works by Sepehr Pirasteh (comp.) and Traci Williams (libretto); Rose Hall (comp.) and Cecil Castellucci (libretto); Jamey Guzman (comp.) and Melanie Abrams (libretto); and Jessica Rudman (comp.) and Kendra Preston Leonard (libretto)
Light refreshments served. Boyer recital credit given
Join us for our first Beyond the Notes noontime concert of 2023 as we welcome the Philadelphia-based multimedia ensemble ENAensemble.
Note: The performance and talkback will last longer than our traditional Beyond the Notes performances. Please come and go as works with your schedule.
All programs are free and open to all, and registration is encouraged.
(This post first appeared in September of 2022 when this concert was originally scheduled.)
Welcome to a new season of Beyond the Notes! My name is Becca Fülöp and I’m thrilled to introduce myself as Temple University Libraries’ new Performing Arts Librarian and Beyond the Notes coordinator. It has been a long time since we have been able to present live music at Charles Library, and this program of new music by up-and-coming composers and librettists, curated and performed by Temple alumni and students, is a fantastic way to kick off the year.
In anticipation of this exciting event, I conducted an interview with two of ENAensemble‘s founding members, Music Director Evan Kassof ’21 and Theatrical Director Nicole Renna ’16. The ensemble is named for the first letters of all three founders’ names (along with Artistic Director Anaïs Naharro-Murphy ’17). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Becca Fülöp: Where did the idea for your serial opera project come from? Can you explain a little bit what it’s all about?
Nicole Renna: The serial opera was Evan’s brainchild. I am always astonished at how many ideas Evan has—they seem to be never-ending!
Evan Kassof: The Serial Opera Project came about during discussions after our first production was so successful. There was an opportunity to work with FringeArts where they had a once-a-month sketch show, where you could essentially present in-process works in a public performance to get feedback, etc. We wanted to see what doing opera in that kind of setup could look like, and while we spoke a lot with Fringe about it, it never quite panned out.
In the meantime, though, we were bitten by this idea we had developed of having these serialized chamber operas. Initially, the plan was to have the composer/librettist teams come to the show before theirs, and then they would have a month to continue the story. However, as we started talking to composers and librettists in the area and in our networks, we realized that wasn’t nearly enough time for them to make a piece, so we reconfigured the idea a bit—with the help of my friend and librettist Aleksandar Hut Kono—turning it into something that was serialized through theme and setting more so than chronological narrative.
At the same time, we were looking for a venue to host the performances, and were able to build a really fantastic, collaborative, and supportive relationship with Ray Banas and Leanne Fallon at the Music Department of the Philadelphia Free Library. They opened their space to us without conditions, and encouraged us to explore it as a theatrical, living space. The first performance in there was an inspiration for each of the creative teams that came after, as we all saw the unique potential of performing there. The audience is so close to the performers, the ambiance is magical with the limited lighting design we do, and the visceral nature of making loud noises in a traditionally quiet space is so exciting—for the singers, players, us composers, and the audience!
Nicole: When he first shared the idea with me, I was a bit skeptical. Would audiences enjoy a series of disjunct new operas—about a problematic elevator?
Evan: That was 3 years ago. We wanted to recreate that magic, but we wanted to do it in a more manageable way—one where we had more time to develop the works, rehearse them, and spend the money on paying the performers closer to their worth. We halved the project’s scope while maintaining its original timeline and ideology, and then picked a theme that was much more open-ended: The Celestial.
Nicole: What intrigued me the most was the idea of working with short-form storytelling. I’d always loved reading collections of short stories, and I remembered being enamored with the anthology film Paris, je t’aime, a series of short films all directed by different people. Come to think of it, one of my favorite operas is Puccini’s Suor Angelica, not only for its beautiful music, but for the amount of drama packed into a single act.
Becca: What do you look for in a new commission? How do you know that a project is something you want to be a part of?
Nicole: When I consider a submission, I look at the text first. Is this a story we want to help put in front of audiences? Is this a story that rarely gets told? Then I consider the treatment of the text—does the music serve the story? Finally, I look at the vocal writing. My favorite submissions have included work that I want to sing myself. Knowing what it takes to put yourself out there, I make a point of just marveling at the fact that this art was made in the first place.
Evan: I engage with commissioning in two different ways, either as a composer or as curator. As a composer, I consider a new commission on how it would exist as an opportunity to grow my own creative and expressive practice. Are these people I want to make music with? Can I manage to deliver something meaningful within the scope/time frame/etc.? Does it align with my own creative goals (opera or science music)? And, frankly, are they paying well? The reality is that the answer to the last question can supersede the nuances of the others. There is no ethical creation under capitalism, but there is more—or less—ethical creation. Balancing the “I have to eat” with the “I can’t let my integrity starve” is an artificial pendulum that our very scarcity-oriented art-making “market” creates and reinforces.
I see my role in ENAensemble more as a curator, along with Nicole and Anaïs [Naharro-Murphy]’s impeccable taste. We do a really good and honest job of evaluating the submissions we receive, considering creative elements inherent in the submitted portfolio but also what could happen if the creative team was given a spot. Commissioning is very hard, and I think we are—I certainly am—still figuring it out. Ultimately, we serve our performers as they are the core of what we do. So we are always looking for people who are going to honor that relationship, collaborate openly, honestly, and thoughtfully, and give the performers the space they need artistically to blossom into their roles. I suppose we do have an agenda when commissioning, but it is not an aesthetic one. We started ENA to produce an opera and a cabaret, but we keep doing ENA so we can produce works and performance opportunities that challenge some of the more traditional expectations of young-artist-oriented operatic opportunities. Opera is a broken form in so many ways, and we are doing little things we think might fix it, one commission, one production at a time.
Becca: What was your favorite part of going to school at Temple?
Evan: I’ll keep this one short. Meeting the friends I still get to make music with!
Nicole: I spent my time at Temple with a group of really talented, smart, and funny sopranos. There were never enough opportunities to go around, but instead of falling prey to scarcity-mindset as Big Opera™ would have it, we uplifted and encouraged each other. I remember auditioning for the concerto competition in the company of some of these sopranos. We all stayed until the last soprano sang their piece and then grabbed a bite in the Artist’s Palate (is it still called that?) to celebrate. We gushed over each other’s repertoire choices and really rooted for each other. I learned a lot from each and every one of them.
I’d also like to give a shout out to the food trucks, particularly my beloved Burger Tank.
Becca: What advice would you give to current Temple Boyer students interested in creating their own ensembles and forging a career in new music?
Evan: Be respectful. You can make amazing musical experiences with people if you treat them well, treat them honestly, and treat them openly. It is very easy to be seduced by the transactional nature of music making. “How can this gig turn into that next, better one that I want?” “How can working with so-and-so get me in that door?” etc. These are all valid, reasonable, and necessary ways to treat your career. It is naïve to think otherwise. Nevertheless, treating an interaction, a booking conversation, a rehearsal, or a performance as a stepping stone while you’re there is missing the point. Be entirely in that moment, make sincere, meaningful music with your friends, and let that kind of integrity guide your career. I have been incredibly lucky to get to keep working with some amazing musicians and friends, but I also think that luck is “earned” in that I don’t show up to a rehearsal thinking “If I treat the flute player well, they’ll play this next gig in April…!” Instead, I show up thinking “I have a responsibility to treat this flute player well because they are sharing their time, talent, and creativity with me. That’s awesome, let’s make cool things.” And what happens is, we make damn cool things.
- It’s ok to feel like you’re making it up as you go.
- It’s normal to feel like the thing you’re making isn’t any good.
- Not everyone is supposed to like you or your work.
- Go to the Burger Tank when you feel stuck.
- Stephen Sondheim says it best: “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see.”
Becca: If you could go back in time and be present at any classical music premiere, what would you choose?
Evan: This is a wild question. I have no idea! I suppose we’re supposed to say something like Mahler 8 (which would be awesome) or Beethoven 9 or <insert spectacular piece here>. I am susceptible to those kinds of pieces anyways (Always here for Mahler, Bruckner, etc.). But then, what about Rite of Spring, or Bernstein’s Mass or the opening of Bayreuth? I think it depends on where I am at. Music is like that, it is about consent. I can disqualify every piece listed above for this reason or that, like Beethoven 9 being unlistenable to me because I can’t unhear the stupid Stars Movie Channel jingle that used the tune. I can’t let Beethoven 9 in, it’s just too polluted to “work” on me. Tonight, the answer might be the potentially unremarkable premiere of Korsakov’s Antar or Suk’s A Summer’s Tale, but maybe next week it is the premiere of Bruckner 8, or Beach 2, or Riley’s In C, or Grisey’s Partiels, or Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130, or…. So, I’ll say this: If I could be at one premiere, it’d be Strauss’s Salome. Great opera, super wild, must have been a party!
Nicole: I mean, the only correct answer is the premiere of The Rite of Spring, right?
Becca: There are no wrong answers!
Nicole: Not a premiere per se, but I’d also love to travel back to the 1930s and sit on the panel of Maria Callas’s first audition for the Athens Conservatoire. She got rejected! We all have to start somewhere.