How does a non-music person even end up working in opera, a thing that can seem so distant to folks who aren’t already part of it?
Hi, it’s Megan. I’m going to get personal. Here’s my story with opera.
Decades into my theater career, I discovered writing for opera. Working as a librettist became a highlight and emerging focal point of my practice. I didn’t expect this.
As a teenager I loved listening to opera classics in languages I don’t speak (Italian, French, German) and even binge-watched all of Wagner’s Ring Cycle on VHS in a cubby in my school’s library. I loved the size and boldness of these wild epics. But it didn’t seem connected to anything I would do or make. I’m not Puccini or Wagner, and I’m definitely alive.
Then it turns out that new English-language opera is a thing, a real thing, and that audiences are open and adventurous in ways I never expected.
I didn’t learn about this from a magazine about writing opportunities or from a mentor or from a theater colleague. I learned about it from my sister.
She suggested I apply to WNO’s “American Opera Initiative,” where experienced opera composers and librettists support artists who are newly discovering the medium. I was selected for mentorship by Mark Campbell and paired with a composer (Nathan Fletcher) who I’d never met.
It all worked out, and I fell in love. Not with Mark or Nathan (though we had a great time), but with opera. The scope, the power, the discipline!
(I also met Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a typical neighborhood opera superfan who came to dress rehearsals because she lived across the road from the Kennedy Center where we were working.)
I am always doing too many things already to do everything I want to do, so I’m not in opera as much as I’d like– but I’ve loved collaborating with every composer (Spicer Carr, Brian Ciach, Nathan Fletcher, Clover Nahabedian, DelShawn Taylor) I’ve worked with.
And, of course, with my most frequent opera collaborator:
My genius sister Nell Shaw Cohen is an opera and vocal music composer.
As she went from conservatory to grad school to professionalizing in the field I never thought her beautiful work (which I find gorgeous but wildly technically intimidating) would have anything to do with my career.
In our collaboration on the full-length chamber opera “Turn and Burn,” I finally accepted my destiny as half of the most impactful librettist/composer sibling duo since Englebert Humperdinck and his sister Adelheid wrote their (surprisingly strawberry-centric?) semi-comic operatic adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel.” Our opera has a LOT less strawberries than theirs did.
Seriously, that Hansel and Gretel adaptation is really big on strawberries. There’s a whole, like, strawberry thing. Probably I should write a short opera libretto from the perspective of Hansel and Gretel’s strawberries? Feel free to commission me via twitter.