Commissioned by a consortium of opera companies led by Santa Fe Opera in association with San Francisco Opera that includes: Lyric Opera Of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Sarasota Opera, and Seattle Opera
The Melville Hankins Family Foundation and The Andrew Mellon Foundation made this project possible with generous funding.
Workshop Reading: September 2018 in Chicago.
First performance in 2019 to be given by Santa Fe Opera.
Libretto by Leslie Dunton-Downer
Duration: ca. 65 minutes
A celebrated Artist takes the stage to perform, and is alarmed to find that an opera is about to start in the same space. Before the mix-up can be sorted out, the opera begins. The dismayed Artist watches and reacts as the opera unfolds.
In a rooftop garden inhabited by a family of humans and other creatures, the trouble-making Sweet Potato -- partly out of curiosity, but also just for the fun of it -- kicks the sun out of the galaxy. Sweet Potato’s friend, 88, is devastated, but Sweet Potato relishes seeing a big orb become a tiny blip in the sky.
Grandfather Beekeeper calls for all to pray for the sun’s return. When Squirrel plays the sacred prayer instrument, the Cosmic Cord, Sweet Potato blithely cuts the Cord. Shock is followed by heartbreak when Grandmother Seed-Keeper departs for her secret cellar to prepare for the garden’s survival. Grandfather orders Sweet Potato to the summit of City Park Mountain to gain insight, and asks 88 to go as well. After the friends set out, Grandfather gives Pigeon a message to deliver to Sweet Potato.
Sweet Potato and 88 encounter Friendly Dog, Busy Woodpecker, and Spinning Spider. Each makes extraordinary sounds with a part of its body. Fascinated, Sweet Potato tries to get each wonderful body part, but learns the hard way that 88 is right: some boundaries need to be respected.
Atop City Park Mountain, Sweet Potato falls into a strange sleep. 88 is perplexed to see Sweet Potato making mysterious gestures while unconscious, unaware that Grandfather is showing Sweet Potato these gestures in a dream. Awake, Sweet Potato declares Grandmother the key to the sun’s return and insists she be found quickly. Pigeon lands on the mountaintop with Grandfather’s message, but Sweet Potato has already left with 88.
Urgently searching for Grandmother, Sweet Potato collapses with hunger in City Park Playground. 88 spots a pile of candy; it belongs to two City-Dwellers who give 88 a clue about Grandmother’s cellar. Sweet Potato tricks the City-Dwellers into competing for their own candy, and the Artist soon steps into the action to win the candy for Sweet Potato.
Joined by the Artist, Sweet Potato and 88 set out with fresh energy and find the secret cellar. When Sweet Potato shows Grandmother the dreamed gestures, and passes her test of wisdom, Grandmother knows is it time for her to return home with her grandchildren.
All are reunited in the garden. Grandmother repairs the Cosmic Cord with help from Pigeon’s message so the sun can be called back home. A gesture from the mountaintop dream signals Grandmother to crown Sweet Potato the new Beekeeper, and to welcome the Artist into the rooftop family. Beekeeper Sweet Potato brazenly renames the Cosmic Cord, and launches a surprising new sun prayer for the era to come. While all celebrate into the night, Sweet Potato can’t resist driving 88 crazy just one more time.
Finally, the stage is turned over to the Artist.
This piece was created for new voices to be heard in American opera. In that spirit, it offers an unconventional role for a guest artist to improvise rather freely, to expand our ideas about what an opera is and how it can sound. Also unusual about this opera is that its title character, Sweet Potato, is a trickster, an archaic figure found in nearly all cultures through the ages, and identified by Carl Jung as a universal human archetype.
Unlike protagonists whose actions are clearly laudable, tricksters are more akin to Bart Simpson: captivating but quite naughty, and at first glance even destructive. Drawing on a curious brand of creativity to disrupt the sacred order, the trickster can push a major reset button to clear the way for a society’s fresh start.
I think of Sweet Potato as a ‘left brain’ character, and of Sweet Potato’s friend, the rule-abiding and more rational 88, as a ‘right brain’ type. Their relationship is not always smooth, but together the friends form a powerful force that brings new possibilities into their world.
Respect for and love of nature; humans, flora, and fauna as interlinked; appreciating boundaries between self and others; challenges and joys of friendship and teamwork; honoring individual ways of being and learning; embracing community and communal values; the wisdom of the older generations; empathy and unconditional love; personal transformation and insight; nature in urban settings; opera embracing diverse musical traditions, artists, and audience members.
An opera house or any theater stage; a rooftop garden; streets; a mountaintop; a playground; and a glass jar factory cellar in a city where all creatures (humans, animals, birds, insects) live as equals and are able to speak and sing.
Two roles are gender-marked in this work: GRANDMOTHER and GRANDFATHER. All other roles are expressly written as unmarked by gender.
In the opera’s world, some characters are human, such as Sweet Potato, and some are not, such as 88, a hummingbird. All characters treat one another as equal creatures.
"Composing for voice is a huge passion and as a result the largest part of my catalogue is music for voice(s). The human voice — the most subtle, complex, and fragile yet forceful, flexible, seductive, and persuasive carrier of musical ideas and meanings — has always been an inspiration for and influence upon my entire musical thinking. I sing as I compose. When musicians ask me a question, I sing the answer." Augusta Read Thomas
Nicole Paris is a world-class talent. I am inspired by her beatboxing and, for the past year, through a series of detailed workshops, we have been collaborating on an opera that I am composing in which Nicole plays the lead role. Our time together is energized and creative. We laugh a great deal when working together. Because we trust each other, we are able to explore sound together and work hard to find just the right atmosphere for each scene in the opera.
In the opera, Nicole, the special guest artist, beatboxes and sings. The other vocalists sing and, from time to time, develop a wide variety of vocalizations akin to beatboxing. As such, the opera organically unfolds a sound world where different musical traditions crisscross and are deeply integrated.
I see opera as embracing diverse musical traditions, artists, and audience members.
"Operatic Beatz, Embrace The Newness. After meeting Augusta Read Thomas, I knew we would awaken the Universe with new music." Nicole Paris
Personnel Note: This work ideally utilizes 4 principal vocalists, but can be given by 3 principal vocalists if one plays both Grandfather and Grandmother. All secondary roles may, if absolutely required, be covered by one performer, whether a singer or actor.
The work also calls for a Special Guest Artist whose particular art form is available to enter into a fresh dialogue with opera. The Artist is offered wide latitude to improvise and/or to use alternative text, although basic text for this role is provided for use as desired. Those who may fruitfully be cast as Artist include: beatboxer, jazz singer, scat singer, and vocalists working in other genres such as R&B, hip-hop, blues, Latin, reggae, country, folk, so-called world music; any artist whose work can be performed for or presented to the audience: musician, poet, visual artist, actor, performance artist, dancer, acrobat, magician, ventriloquist, puppeteer, comic/impersonator.
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To obtain examination or performance material for this
Augusta Read Thomas work, please contact Nimbus Music Publishing.