YOUNG AMELIA: What does it feel like to fly?
DODGE: Imagine a feather pushed up by the wind,
climbing through sea mist and clouds,
propelled into blue.
YOUNG AMELIA: Are you afraid?
DODGE: Fear is worth feeling. . .
(From the opera “Amelia”, music by Daron Hagen, libretto by poet Gardner McFall, story by Stephen Wadsworth)
Almost nine years ago, I was a fairly new addition to the Seattle Opera staff and I attended a planning meeting with General Director Speight Jenkins. I had come to the opera world most recently from a sortee at The Cleveland Orchestra, who had a healthy tradition of performing new classical music works and commissioning new work. I boldly asked the General Director who is maverick-like in many aspects of the opera field whether he ever considered commissioning an opera. Before he answered he asked me why I would ask. This was my opportunity to get on my soap box and talk about taking risks that weren’t just temporal (lasting the length of a production) but taking the type of risks that have staying power. I talked about the responsibility of artists and companies to stay in the creative mode, and why I thought it was an imperative for those in artistic leadership positions to expand not only their horizons, but those of their staff, audiences, and community. We had an interesting meeting whereby Speight talked about some thoughts he had regarding commissioning new work and an admission that he was probably overdue in that regard.
Later in the day, my then supervisor, holding the job I have now, called me into her office and dressed me down for even bringing up the subject. Didn’t I understand the financial undertaking such a project would require? I was told in no uncertain terms that with a hall renovation and multitude of projects underway, we as a company had no business even contemplating such an endeavor. I took the lashing, but in my own defiant manner I silently remembered the words of this poem:
And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
to Blossom. -- Anais Nin
And I knew, if asked to choose creativity versus stability, I would always be the risk-taker.
Now, nine years later, on the eve before the world premiere of the American opera “Amelia”, I stand in awe of all the risk-takers I have had the privilege to shadow. “Amelia” is the first opera to deal with our Vietnam history told from the perspective of those left behind by those called to duty. The opera is told from a women’s point of view, Amelia, whose father was shot down in Vietnam. As she tries to make peace with all that she has lost, she also finds the love that allows her to soldier on as a woman, a wife, and eventually a parent. Our innate love of flight is also interwoven throughout the opera. Icarus and Daedalus remind us that our fascination of flight is both exhilarating and risky:
ICARUS: What does it feel like to fly?
DAEDALUS: Imagine a feather pushed up by the wind,
climbing through sea mist and clouds.
ICARUS: Are you ever afraid?
DAEDALUS: You must fly straight. You must take care…
… Don’t fly near the…
ICARUS: . . . water.
DAEDALUS: And don’t fly too near the sun.
While Amelia’s dream-induced alter-ego, Amelia Earhart or The Flier, reminds us that life is an adventure that we should embrace full-faced, without regret:
THE FLIER: Maybe I’m not dead. Who knows?
What is important now is that I followed my desire;
I married the air --
I sat at the sun’s feet; my lovers were the moons and stars.
My time was my time, not wasted on fear,
Or regret. And I was never bored.
So, tomorrow night as the house lights dim and the curtain goes up, I will see a new American opera take flight on the wings of a courageous and emotional score, soaring on the words of a loving libretto, and delicately staged honoring the power of the human relationship. At that moment, I will once again be reminded when given the option, I am lucky to be surrounded with people who also choose the blossom over the bud.
"Amelia" makes its world premiere on Saturday, May 8th with Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall. You can experience more of the risk-takers behind "Amelia" at www.seattleopera.org/amelia or follow the Gardner McFall's libretto on Twitter at @amelialibretto.