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Now you can add ‘Opera Writer’ to your resumé thanks to PPAIR Artists Alex Stein and Erin Bregman

Posted by on January 23, 2014

As part of our ongoing Participatory Performing Artist-in-Residence Program (PPAIR), San Francisco Little Opera’s Alex Stein and Erin Bregman invite visitors to co-create an opera with them at Winterpalooza Family Festival Saturday, January 25th from 12-3PM (click here for more info).

by Alex Stein and Erin Bregman

When Erin and I set out to collect lyrics and musical ideas for “Song of the Selkie (Snow Spell)” (see more on Selkies here), I did not know what to expect. Collaborative composition is not new to me; Over the past few years I’ve led close to thirty different elementary classrooms through the process. However, I have never asked strangers to simply drop in, write some lyrics and sing them to me without any warm-up or preparation.

Having sketched out the plot of our opera (using ideas from all of the wonderful people who submitted them through our website), Erin and I decided that the biggest musical moments in our opera would be the casting and lifting of the Snow Spell. We knew that the Selkie, at the Sea Hag’s bidding, would rise from the sea, flap his flippers, crane his neck and honk before singing a dark and mysterious incantation.

How would we get people to actually write this dark and mysterious incantation? Erin and I set the ball rolling with “Blow ye wind, rise ye sea, gathering power stealthily.” We came up with a little bit of melody. Then we made some worksheets which featured our opening lines and a prompt for participants to continue the idea. After writing new lines, participants would practice reading them aloud with a partner a couple of times before attempting to sing them to Erin, Stacey or Emily, who would pre-approve them to come to the piano and share their ideas with me. For my part, I would sit in a corner periodically crooning “Blow ye wind, rise ye sea.” This gave folks some context until someone could come forward to share an idea which I would then transcribe.

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Completed worksheets from First Friday visitors helped Alex and Erin craft the song ‘Blow Ye Wind’ for Winterpalooza Family Festival.

So, we opened the door and said, “Help us write an opera.” At first we were met with cocked heads and silence. You could almost hear the lonesome shrieks of the gulls over the wine-dark sea. Finally a brave soul sat at a table, took up a worksheet with a flourish and offered us “So find the wave that drives the hag’s fell breath– and find the mind that sees through time.” A few more people peered into our room questioningly, heard the word opera, and tiptoed out. But a few more stayed and offered lyrics and music.

Eventually we reached critical mass. People came, people stayed, people pondered. I notice a couple of ladies in one corner working for over an hour. We took ideas from eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds. People belted forth entire songs, or whispered tiny but brilliant fragments in my ear. In the end, I came away with a massive stack of worksheets, a phone nearly maxed-out with recordings and staff paper full of melodic scribblings.

The most amazing part of the whole experience, for me, was seeing how people of all ages worked together— children, parents, and grandparents, college students, young couples, friends, etc. People really got into the spirit of the thing, and they took time to discuss their ideas with each other and work them out. I cannot wait to see what everybody does at Winterpalooza.

Listen to ‘Blow Ye Wind’ created by First Friday visitors below: