Windsor Square’s own Emma Jude Harris will direct a production of American composer Amy Beach’s rarely performed chamber opera Cabildo this month. The program will be performed at Wilton’s Music Hall in London and filmed for on-demand viewing, so locals, including Emma’s parents Jim and Janna Bodek Harris of Hancock Park, can enjoy it.
Amy Beach (1867-1944) was the first American woman to compose and publish a symphony, in 1896. Her compositions, and her 1918 article “To the Girl Who Wants to Compose,” have inspired women in music for more than a century. Cabildo, Beach’s only opera, was composed in 1932 and incorporates folk and Creole influences. It did not premiere until three years after her death and has been rarely performed.
Director Harris, once an aspiring opera singer, suffered a damaged voice. She transitioned to theater and thought there would be no more opera in her future. But after finishing drama school at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, directed Cabildo at the Grimeborn festival in 2019. It was the opera’s England premiere.
“It wound up being really fun, and a nice full circle for me, using a negative experience I’d had and making sure singers were in a better, safer environment,” Harris says. “The Grimbeborn production was kind of ragtag, with a smallish budget and a small theater of only 100 seats. But it went well and I wanted to take it further. Opera is typically very expensive to put on, but Cabildo is a chamber opera written for cello, violin, piano, with a cast of seven.”
Harris ended up planning a second Cabildo production at Wilton’s Music Hall, a 350-seat Heritage site built in 1859. COVID-19 postponed the production twice.
The opera takes place at the Cabildo in New Orleans, the former Spanish colonial city hall and jail, now the Louisiana State Museum. A contemporary tour of the building bookends the main scene about the 1814 imprisonment there of notorious pirate and slave trader/privateer Pierre Lafitte. A tourist, Mary, imagines the story of Lafitte’s escape via a dream flashback.
When Beach wrote the opera, “contemporary” was the 1930s. In Harris’ new production, the contemporary timeframe is re-conceived as the present day. Mary finds the story of Pierre Lafitte romantic, which in today’s world is “problematic,” Harris says. “How do we honor Amy Beach’s music, while interrogating critically the blind spots in her feminism and politics? That’s the goal of the production: to elevate her while also looking at her critically.”
Beach was a concert pianist who married young to a doctor several decades older. He felt public performance was unladylike and allowed her to perform only two recitals a year, with profits donated to charity. When her husband died, Beach toured Europe as a concert pianist. As a composer, she was self-taught. Harris adds, “Classical music erases women. People should know who she is.”
Harris also arranged for Amy Beach’s handwritten score to Cabildo to be engraved (essentially typeset) for the first time. Beach willed her estate to an artist space in New England, MacDowell, founded in 1907 by composer Marian and Edward MacDowell. In order to obtain the score, the production group had to look up the Amy Beach archive, which resides at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. The University sent the request to MacDowell, which sent a copy of the score, in Beach’s own hand, from the archive, for $40.
The 2019 production used that manuscript in rehearsal, but, says Harris, “It was hard for the singers because there are cross-outs and a few places where we had to make executive decisions.” After the Grimbeborn Festival, Harris was contacted by the Boulanger Initiative, whose mission is to promote music composed by women.
“They had been trying to find the manuscript and we sent it to them. An intern wrote back who was an Amy Beach fan and offered to engrave it.” The current production is fortunate to be able to use that clear, newly engraved score.
Cabildo will be performed live onstage at Wilton’s Music Hall in London September 7-11. It has a running time: of about one hour. A filmed live performance of the opera will be available on demand for two weeks, beginning September 13. Tickets will go on sale that day, and be available for two weeks. Click here to purchase tickets.