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Oberlin Conservatory Commissions Star Composer Melissa Dunphy

Anna Heflin of Classical Post

Composer Melissa Dunphy, winner of a 2020 Discovery Grant from Opera America, has been named the next composer in residence in conjunction with the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program. Dunphy will develop her opera Alice Tierney with librettist Jacqueline Goldfinger through interactive experiences with Oberlin Conservatory students, culminating in a world premiere at Oberlin in January 2023. Launched in 2019, the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program supports the development and world-premiere staging of new operas by living composers. Each opera is delivered from conception to completion through extensive on-campus experiences at Oberlin. Melissa Dunphy joins Classical Post to discuss Alice Tierney, writing for opera, the collaboration process, and more.

Classical Post: Alice Tierney was a real person, how did you find the story and who was she? You’ve shared that the story is connected to Murder and Mayhem, how so?

Melissa Dunphy: A few years ago while researching the history of the building I own in Center City Philadelphia (more on that later), I uncovered newspaper reports of a death that occurred on a cold January night in 1880: a 45-year-old “dissipated woman” (i.e. sex worker) named Alice Tierney was found strangled and strung up on a fence in the rear of my property. Shockingly, Tierney’s death was written up by the police and the press at the time as an accident and never investigated, although it seems likely from the details that she was murdered. As soon as I put this together, I made a pledge to find a way to tell her story, which I think is especially resonant in the 21st century, when our culture is actively grappling with the ways in which women’s stories of trauma are silenced or minimized, especially those of vulnerable women such as poor immigrants.

CP: What is the premise of the opera? What does creating an opera in the 21st century mean to you?

MD: The first hitch I ran into when considering telling Alice’s story is that, other than the reports of her death, there’s little written information about her. What we can learn about her is dimmed by the passage of 140 years and hampered by the general lack of records about anyone who lived on the fringes of society. I sat down with playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, a dear friend of mine, and we came up with the idea to tell Alice’s story as an opera from the perspectives of four modern-day grad student archaeologists who are running into exactly these issues piecing together Alice Tierney’s life while excavating the place where she lived and died. The use of four different perspectives leads to an inevitable problem: historical narratives say just as much about the person telling the story as the story that is being told. What assumptions, experiences, prejudices, knowledge, and personalities do these four archaeologists bring to their research, which affect the way they see and conceive of Alice Tierney? Attempting to answer this question delves into big issues like truth, justice, and equality—and, again, this question is something that has become increasingly important in the 21st century. For hundreds of years, American history (and indeed, the entire genre of opera) has been primarily told by one demographic and centers that demographic by default. In recent years, there has been a cultural movement to create a fuller picture of our society by including the stories and perspectives often ignored: those of poor people, enslaved people, people of color, women … basically everyone who wasn’t allowed to vote in the first century-plus of our nation’s existence. So despite the apparent focus on the sordid death of a 19th-century sex worker (a very operatic trope!), Alice Tierney is actually an opportunity to explore the ways that different storytellers shape the story being told, a very current issue. This framing also gives me the opportunity to have at least four different singers portraying Alice Tierney in four very different ways, which I’m very excited about.

CP: You’ve mentioned on social media that the opera is actually about archaeology, which is a passion of yours. Can you talk about that? When did you become interested in archaeology and what is your experience in that field?

MD: This is a long story, so I’ll try to give the abridged version: a few years ago, my husband Matt and I bought a tiny storefront magic theater in Center City Philadelphia after the leaky building went into foreclosure. During construction work, we accidentally stumbled upon two privies full of artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries nestled in the building’s foundation. Both Matt and I have been interested in archaeology since we were kids (our first real overseas vacation together was to Egypt), and we had trouble finding professional archaeologists with the resources to help us at short notice, so we ended up doing a bunch of research and clearing the brick-lined privies of the thousands of dishes, pots, bottles, glasses, animal bones, and assorted other artifacts ourselves. We’re still in the process of cleaning, sorting, processing, and researching everything we found! My Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania took at least a year longer than scheduled because I threw myself into historical research of my property and material culture instead of writing my dissertation. Our amateur archaeological pursuits have taken over a significant portion of our lives, not to mention all the available shelving space in our apartment. After we posted pictures of some of our finds to the internet, we connected with real professional archaeologists and museum professionals at the National Park Service, the Museum of the American Revolution, AECOM, and the Chipstone Foundation, as well as some amateurs who do this regularly as a hobby (known as “privy diggers”) and we’ve learned so much from them. I feel so lucky to call many of them my friends, and I’m constantly in awe of their expertise and passion. I go to archaeology conferences now just to hang out with them and pick their brains! CP: Can you speak about the relationship between your podcast The Boghouse and your compositional practice? Do you enjoy telling stories through the podcast and through music?

MD: The Boghouse tells the full story of how we acquired the magic theater, our dive into archaeology and history, and our future plans for the building. When Matt and I first began recording the show, I joked that it has nothing to do with music at all! It’s sort of an escape from my composition day job. There’s an interesting comparison, though: music is by its nature ephemeral; it’s in the air and then it’s gone, and so is a podcast. The actual amateur archaeology we do, though, involves hours of piecing together broken pottery and glass that hasn’t been seen in 250 years, revealing very concrete and real objects that can tell us a lot about their previous owners, and there’s something very therapeutic and grounding and exciting about that process for somebody who mostly makes vibrating air for a living.

I’m primarily a storyteller in my work, though, which is why I’ve always been particularly drawn to vocal music as a composer. And I tend to tell stories about the things that move me, whether that’s politics or social justice or complicated antiheroes. I probably knew deep down that the podcast and my archaeological adventures would one day lead to some kind of composition. I’m just so thrilled to have an opportunity as meaty as this opera project!

CP: Can you speak about the collaborative process between you and your librettist Jacqueline Goldfinger, dramaturg Julia Bumke, and director Christopher R. Mirto in the creation of Alice Tierney?

MD: Jacqueline Goldfinger and I have been having lunch every few months for a couple of years because we admire each other’s work and were interested in figuring out a way to collaborate. When Chris Mirto reached out and suggested an opera, it was a clear case of kismet. He also connected us to Julia Bumke, who is a dramaturg also based here in Philadelphia. With a subject steeped in both history and a very specific expert profession, it’s so important to have a dramaturg on board to provide research, context, ideas—essentially to keep us honest.The first stage of the collaboration gives Jackie the biggest workload as she creates a draft of the first act. Generally I like seeing a substantial draft before I start composing, so I can see what words and ideas might carry through as motifs. Then as the music is written or dramaturgy concerns crop up, the draft might shift and we’ll bounce back and forth. I love working with text, and I love setting unusual text that reads more like prose than poetry (I think of it as finding the song within the words). So I’m looking forward to seeing how Jackie’s impressive playwriting chops tackle the process of creating a libretto for the first time.

The workshops (we have three scheduled during the opera’s creation) will be Chris’s chance to dig into the material with us and with Oberlin Conservatory student performers. This is such a luxury! We’ll be able to see portions of the opera semi-staged and experiment in real time during the writing process. I think the students will also get a lot of out of the experience as they watch the interaction between all the team members, how that affects the score, and what it takes to make an opera a reality.

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