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Creating a New Canon

Cincinnati Opera, CCM collaborate on Opera Fusion production of Doubt

By Anne Arenstein · November 9th, 2011 · Onstage
arts1_operafushionPhoto by Eamon Queeney
At the end of John Patrick Shanley’s multi-award winning play and film Doubt, the formidable Sister Aloysius cries, “Oh, Sister James. I have doubts! I have such doubts!” 

Those two short lines are laden with pathos, emotion and high drama. It sounds operatic — and it will be. Opera Fusion: New Works chose the drama of struggle for faith and power for its inaugural workshop production, with libretto by Shanley and the score by protean composer Douglas Cuomo.

Cincinnati Opera and CCM’s opera department are the forces behind Opera Fusion: New Works, and the program moniker says it all. 

“We’re trying to foster new work that has a chance of entering the canon of operatic repertoire,” says Marcus Küchle, Cincinnati Opera’s head of artistic operations, who co-directs the initiative with Robin Guarino, J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Professor of Opera at CCM.

Cincinnati Opera’s role in co-producing the Toni Morrison-Richard Danielpour opera Margaret Garner in 2005 led to a three-year grant from the Andrew J. Mellon Foundation, announced last May. The funding covers a 10-day intensive residency for the composer and librettist to fine-tune their work utilizing artistic and administrative resources provided by CCM and Cincinnati Opera. Guarino will direct and Seattle-based Gary Wedow will conduct.

Doubt: A Parable is set in a Bronx parish in the early 1960s, a time of dramatic upheaval for American Catholicism. Sister Aloysius, an aging, rigid nun, and novice Sister James can’t trust the charismatic Father Flynn’s success, especially with the boys, and one in particular, whose mother confronts the sisters with realities beyond their experiences. 

For Shanley, the ending’s ambiguity is deliberate: “The bottom line of Doubt is doubt. I live in a paradoxical world and that gets communicated in whatever I do.”

The first-time collaborators are a unique mutual admiration society with an uncanny sense of the other. 

“There were a number of things that drew me to the work,” says Cuomo says.

“The story has wonderful operatic moments and John (Shanley) has a musical way with words.” 

Shanley found the composer “incredibly civilized and thoughtful, a world music guy in the best sense.” Separately, they use virtually the same words when asked about working together: “exciting and expansive.”

Both men are multimedia veterans with impressive credentials and strong collaborative instincts. Shanley has been writing for the stage since 1982 and in 1987, his screenplay for the hit romance Moonstruck won an Oscar. Shanley directed his cinematic adaptation of Doubt and says that opera gives his work “a spaciousness at the same time that it has a boiled-down intensity.”

Cuomo’s compositions range from concert works to scores for film, stage and television, most notably the Latin-tinged theme for Sex and the City and the haunting music for NBC’s Homicide. His operas include Atomic Opera (1991), an electronic lip-synched opera for electronics, taped voices, piano and soprano, and Arjuna’s Dilemma (2006); Guarino directed the world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 

Two days before the Opera Fusion submission deadline, Cuomo and Shanley received a commission from Minnesota Opera for Doubt in the spring of 2013, which makes Shanley even more grateful for the workshop. 

“It’s an opportunity to put a knife to our throats to get it done,” he laughs. 

Cuomo arrived Nov. 2 with “a decent number of pages,” according to Shanley, who will be in town this week. Cuomo has been working on the music for the past six weeks and when he’s not working with students, he’ll be working on the music or with Shanley. Guarino explains that a reading is a way to hear the work and make changes in the early stages. 

What will audiences hear? It could be dialogue interspersed with ensembles or solos or through-sung scenes, but “don’t come expecting sets or costumes,” Guarino says. Shanley and Cuomo will speak at both performances. A work in progress is precisely the intention, notes Marcus Küchle. 

“Our goal is to develop pieces that have strength and consistency in the way materials are used,” he says.

Saturday’s performance takes place in CCM’s Werner Recital Hall and on Sunday at NKU’s Digitorium, located in Griffin Hall.

Doubt was the frontrunner but both directors say there was strong competition. Despite only three months between the announcement for proposals and the August deadline, they received over 50 submissions from veterans and first-timers, and they listened to all of them. 

“We kept the guidelines purposefully vague,” Küchle says. “There’s no age limit, no previous experience. It wasn’t just us making decisions — this involves recommendations from colleagues, music publishers and other professionals.”

The project directors wrote detailed letters to the applicants (“The best rejection letter I’ve ever gotten,” an applicant told Guarino) to encourage them so submit in the future: There are five more opportunities within the three-year grant period. 

“Opera feels like the highest mountain to climb but collaboration is part of the draw.” Cuomo says. “It’s a very exciting time for opera. Younger composers are writing in different, edgy styles and audiences are going to hear their work.”

For Küchle, Cincinnati’s role is a vital part of Opera Fusion: New Works. 

“We have resources that are fairly unique,” Küchle says. “Everyone’s struggling with the economy and that’s normal. But we’re still strong, and so is the Symphony and the Ballet. Between all these organizations there is so much we can do to develop new works and make Cincinnati an exporter of exciting new art.” ©

DOUBT will be performed 8 p.m. Saturday CCM’s at Werner Recital Hall (tickets are free but reservations required; to reserve seats, call 513-556-4183) and 3 p.m. Sunday at NKU’s Griffin Hall (tickets are also free but reservations required; to reserve seats, call 513-241-2742).



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