Composer, Librettist Selected to Develop New Opera at Oberlin

April 29, 2020
Erich Burnett
composer and librettist from an upcoming Oberlin opera.
Composer Melissa Dunphy (left) and librettist Jacqueline Goldfinger (right) are friends whose first collaboration will take place at Oberlin. Photo credit: Courtesy of Melissa Dunphy; by Kate Raines

Alice Tierney will be workshopped with students, premiered on campus in 2023.

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.

Over the next two-plus years, Dunphy will develop her opera Alice Tierney through interactive experiences with Oberlin students, culminating in a world premiere at Oberlin in January 2023.

Launched in 2019 through the generosity of Elizabeth and Justus ’71 Schlichting, 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.

Dunphy’s librettist for the project is Jacqueline Goldfinger. Both were selected by Assistant Professor of Opera Theater Christopher Mirto after an extensive search. Coincidentally, both composer and librettist hail from Philadelphia and happen to be friends who collaborate for regular lunches but have yet to collaborate professionally.

“Melissa and Jackie are absolutely fantastic,” says Mirto, who is beginning his fourth season as director of Oberlin’s winter-term operas. “I’m thrilled that I get to work with two artists I find incredibly inspiring. Their work ethic is ridiculous, and they are so creative.”

A native of Australia who relocated to the U.S. in 2003, Dunphy specializes in writing for the voice—everything from children’s choir to song cycle to opera—in works that expound messages of social justice. She earned acclaim for her large-scale choral piece Gonzales Cantata, which garnered attention from sources ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Comedy Central. Written in 2009, it consists of text made entirely from transcripts of the 2007 hearings on the U.S. Department of Justice’s interactions with the White House, including testimony from then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In addition to composing, Dunphy is celebrated as a performer of Shakespearean works with regional theater companies, and she is a multi-instrumentalist who makes up one-half of a rock duo with her husband.

Dunphy was one of seven winners of a 2020 Discovery Grant, presented to female composers with the intention of increasing gender parity across the opera industry. That grant will support the development of Alice Tierney at Oberlin.

Primarily a playwright, Goldfinger (pictured right) grew up in the rural South and centers much of her work around Southern Gothic motifs. She teaches playwriting and dramaturgy in the MFA Theater Program at Temple University and is guest faculty at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and Dramatists Guild Institute. She is a past winner of the Yale Drama Prize, Smith Prize, Generations Award, Brown Martin Award, Barrymore Award, and the Philadelphia Critics Award.

Inspired by Dunphy’s experiences with her husband as amateur archeologists, Alice Tierney focuses on the perspectives of four archeologists who unearth clues surrounding the mysterious death of the titular woman. Goldfinger’s libretto emphasizes "Rashomon-style" storytelling, in which multiple witnesses recount the same experience in very different ways; it is named for the 1950 film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, which delves into the recollections of four witnesses to a murder.

For Alice Tierney, Dunphy and Goldfinger will be resident artists at Oberlin through winter term 2023. They will engage in workshops with conservatory students in addition to likely interactions with creative writing, theater, and other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s just so exciting to be at the beginning of something that’s so active and alive,” says Mirto.

“I’m kind of beside myself as a director and an artist. I’m so thrilled to have the chance to work with living artists and to be in the room as a piece of theater is given birth: Just to watch the students so invested in the things they’re working on and to see the piece grow over time. I find that so exhilarating!”

Mirto’s previous productions at Oberlin include Angel’s Bone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by alumna Du Yun ’01 (2018); Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up (2019); and the world premiere of Rachel J. Peters’ The Wild Beast of the Bungalow (2020), the first production supported by the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program.

A former English major at Oberlin, Justus Schlichting sold his health care financial services company in 2011 and began to commission a wide range of music projects the following year. A self-described “super-hardcore commissioner of new music,” Justus Schlichting and his wife have funded more than 200 works since 2012. Their support is fueled by the desire to ensure that there are audiences for classical music for generations to come.

“At Oberlin, students are going to be a part of this process right from day one,” Justus Schlichting said in 2019. “I can think of nothing more valuable for young musicians than to be a part of the creative process from the start. It is the essence of what musicians are all about: to continue to grow and bring vitality to the art form.”

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