On June 18, 2022, National Sawdust and Chelsea Factory will present Bare Opera’s production of ‘Firesongs’ by Thomas Cabaniss.
Cabaniss, a native of South Carolina, was the originator of The Lullaby Project and The Somewhere Project, both at Carnegie Hall, and was the host and composer-in-residence of Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program between 2010 and 2020. In addition to dozens of works for orchestra and chamber ensembles, Cabaniss also composed numerous operas, including “Denmark Vesey” and “The Sandman”, as well as choral works such as “Celestial Fire” and “Behold the Star. “.
OperaWire spoke to the composer about creating “Fire Songs”, his musical language and what he hopes audiences will take away from it.
OperaWire: What inspired the creation of “Fire Songs?” What themes does it explore?
Thomas Cabaniss: After the pandemic confinement of 2020, I started thinking about how songs and singing help us even in the most complicated moments. Sometimes it’s through cathartic release, sometimes through meditative focus, and other times through shared choral moments.
Several years earlier, I had worked on a set of songs adapted from Jeremiah’s book, including “My Song Is a Fire”. I realized that these songs could anchor a theatrical progression that takes us through wonder, passionate anger, peace, and ultimately, acceptance. I drew on all kinds of songs with lyrics by a wide variety of poets. Some of the songs were written years ago and some were created especially for this cycle.
Three of the songs (with text by Wendell Berry) were written in collaboration with composer Mel Marvin, my mentor and great friend. We wrote them as a way to overcome our covid isolation together.
OW: What is the musical language of the work?
TC: I’m a tonal composer, but I also like dissonant groups as a color in my music. I also like repetitive (or minimalistic) structures, and I like to let a song’s particular text dictate the language it seems to need. Born and raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, all of my music has the DNA of native rhythms there.
OW: What is your process for creating the musical language of any work you wish to create?
TC: I spend a lot of time talking, reciting, mumbling and shouting the text of a word. Better to do it alone. I improvise a lot, once again, mostly alone, but now on the piano. Once I have a “half-baked idea”, I try to design the piece that contains that spirit of my favorite improvisations.
OW: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in composing “Fire Songs?”
TC: These are the same ones that songwriters face every time they work: how can I create an entire world in just a few minutes? Not easy, but a joy when it comes together.
OW: In this particular work, are there any other pieces or song cycles that you drew inspiration from? Which and how did they contribute to the creation of this cycle of songs?
TC: I love ‘Dichterliebe’ and ‘The Diary of One Who Vanished’, although I can’t say that I consciously tried to imitate them. But they’re inside me, and they’re probably seeing each other, even when I think they’re not.
OW: What kind of musical journey do you want to take with the audience with “Fire Songs?”
TB: I guess I hope it takes you through a number of different energies, and those find physical and visual complements in the work of the creative artists in the production.
The production will be directed by longtime Bare Opera collaborator Malena Dayen. In recent years, she has directed productions of “Don Giovanni”, “Maria de Buenos Aires” and “The Presence of Odradek”, for the company, as well as “The Late Walk” and “Heroes of New York”. as part of the Decameron Opera Coalition. Dayen has also directed a series of productions for Teatro Grattacielo in recent years.
OperaWire also had the chance to speak with Dayen about her approach to work, her longtime collaboration with Cabaniss, and the team she assembled for the production.
OperaWire: What inspired you to perform “Firesongs?” What inspires you the most in the work of Thomas Cabaniss?
Malena Dayen: I have known Tom’s work for twenty years and have always been a fan of his music. I often sang his art songs in recital, but I also worked with him on the Lullaby project at Carnegie Hall, collaborated with him in his work on baby operas, and even sang with him for years. in “Moving Star”, a collective voice imposition in residence at Carnegie Hall. His music is absolutely personal and original, fun and full of soul; both universal and inclusive and unmistakable Tom’s.
OW: “Firesongs” is not an opera but a cycle of songs. What are the particular challenges of staging a song cycle? Do you approach each track as its own story or do you seek to build a larger story or a thematic bridge through each of the different songs?
MD: Along with my interest in working with Tom, the challenge of staging art songs is what drew me most to this project. Tom wrote these songs throughout his career, based on a group of poets ranging from Tracy K. Smith, Wendell Berry and Maya Angelou to WH Auden and Robert Louis Stevenson, to lesser known poets like Douglas Langworthy and Evelyn Lowe. But they all together tell a story and I’m working to express that larger narrative in this production.
OW: How does your process of constructing your concept differ from your approach to an opera?
MD: The nature of the piece is abstract, emotional and poetic (no pun intended!). My approach was the same as in an opera, in the sense that I was trying to find a way to give space for the heart of the play to live on stage. And I’m thrilled to share what we’ve found: an extension of the conventional recital stage that includes movement, art, and a theatrical expression of the experience of being in community.
OW: Tell me about the team you put together for this production. How did you choose your collaborators and what made them ideal for “Firesongs?”
MD: I work with a group of artists that I admire and I have the chance to consider “my team”. I’ve worked with Troy Ogilvie (choreographer), Lupe Marin (original artwork) and Sangmin Chae (projections) on several projects and together we’re developing a language that I think finds the perfect vessel in “Firesongs.” We have an incredible cast including Inna Dukach, Shanelle Woods, David Charles Tay and Anicet Castel, as well as Eugenia Forteza, Marcelo Guzzo and Chanan Ben Simon who have previously sung in several of my productions. And my artistic and life partner, David Rosenmeyer, who is the musical director of the show and who has collaborated with Thomas for 20 years!
OW: What kind of experience do you want the audience to have with “Firesongs?”
MD: “Firesongs” explores questions of meaning, pain, healing and the experience of being. I hope each audience member can find something in the performance that resonates with their own questions.