Deepening Relationships with Visionary Composer Melissa Dunphy
Katherine FitzGibbon of Resonance Ensemble
November 8, 2019
About two years ago, I was finalizing repertoire for our 2017-18 season's concerts. Resonance singer Christine Johnson reached out to me and said that she knew an amazing piece I should consider for our BODIES concert collaboration with Pride Northwest. It was called "What Do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach?", and it was by a composer whose work I didn't yet know, Melissa Dunphy. Christine had performed it with her previous choir, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, and Melissa Dunphy had been their composer in residence.
I was blown away by this piece. It set the Maine Senate testimony of an unassuming elderly WWII veteran, Phillip Spooner, who was asked whether he believed in equal rights for gay and lesbian people. He asked, "What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" and explained that he fought for equality, not so that his gay son would have fewer rights than his other sons. I found the text extraordinarily moving, but I also felt like the composer had created a special kind of musical magic. The music created a sense of dramatic arc, with intense ebbs and flows that highlighted the emotion behind the text. And it was so beautifully written for the voice. "Who is this composer?," I thought.
So, as one does in the modern age, I did a deep dive into Google and found all of Melissa's works on her website. She has composed a treasure trove of exquisite choral music with texts that engage deeply with some of the most challenging social and political issues of our time. I programmed Melissa's multi-movement American DREAMers on the next season, for the fall of 2018.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2018, when the fall season began accompanied by the heartbreaking and courageous Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. For me, and for many women I know, one of the most frustrating aspects of the hearings was hearing how Dr. Ford was personally attacked, and learning that she and her family had been threatened, for telling her story. I stomped around feeling helpless until I realized what I could do, in my own sphere -- I could amplify this story by commissioning it to be set to music. And I could pair it with the unfortunately parallel testimony of Anita Hill, two and a half decades earlier. Conveniently, Resonance had already programmed a concert with our female singers called Women Singing Women for February of 2019.
By now you must see where this is going (and maybe you have heard this amazing work!) -- I reached out to Melissa, knowing her to be the ideal composer for this project, and asked whether there was any chance she'd have time to compose something by January 2019 (just three months away at that point! Not the ideal turnaround time....) She immediately said yes, having had a similar experience watching Dr. Ford's testimony.
Melissa's work LISTEN was phenomenal, and our performances sold out. Audiences didn't just shed gentle tears, but they sobbed audibly. It provided a kind of collective catharsis that many of us needed.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a joint presentation at the National Collegiate Choral Organization conference with Melissa. I proposed this session, on the Innovation and Social Conscience in the Music of Melissa Dunphy, because I believe conductors NEED to know her work. The session was a blast -- like getting to sit up in front of conductors I know and love, with a composer I know and love, and talking about music and issues that are deeply important and personal to me. (Also, if you haven't heard Melissa speak before, she is brilliant and funny and wise, and I would delightedly shoot the breeze with her for hours!) And afterwards, many conductors came up to me and thanked me for bringing Melissa's work to their attention.
I feel, on a deeper level, as though this is part of what Resonance can do. We can help bring innovative new choral works to life, works that can shine a light on some of the most challenging issues our society faces today. We can promote existing works that haven't yet found a wide audience. And we can partner closely with visionary composers like the amazing Melissa Dunphy, who I am now grateful to call my friend.