96-Hour Opera Project Serves Up Premiere Plus A Creative Competition

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Baritone Andrew Gilstrap, bass Kevin Thompson, and mezzo-soprano Minka Wiltz in a scene from the world premiere of ‘Forsyth County is Flooding’ at Atlanta Opera (Photos by Raftermen)

ATLANTA — For the past three seasons, the 45-year-old Atlanta Opera has pursued a groundbreaking competition for composers and librettists to create new works. Every June, the 96-Hour Opera Festival brings competitors to this southern metropolis, each of whom presents a 10-minute scene to be staged before judges and live audiences. The first-prize winner receives $10,000, along with a commission for a new opera to be premiered at a future date by Atlanta Opera.

“The 96-Hour Project is a vehicle that is meant to allow composers and librettists from underrepresented communities to have a platform where their talents, their stories, and their voices will be heard,” said Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun. “The goal is to nurture and to lift those voices to share with our community.”

Kicking off he 2024 festival June 15 was the world premiere of Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier) by Marcus Norris and Adamma Ebo, the 2022 competition first-prize winners. Presented at Ray Charles Performing Arts Center on the Morehouse College campus in west Atlanta, Forsyth County is a 66-minute one-act work based on true events combined with seemingly supernatural occurrences.

The narrative boldly dives into Georgia’s racist past as well as environmental issues. As entertaining as it is frightening and disturbing, the opera centers on the creation of Lake Lanier, a reservoir and recreational area northeast of Atlanta that many believe is haunted.

A scene from ‘Forsyth County is Flooding

The facts contribute to its ghostly reputation. One of the most popular recreational areas in Georgia, Lake Lanier has drawn millions of visitors each year. Since the historically Black town of Oscarville in northeast Georgia was flooded in the 1950s to create the lake, hundreds of accidents and drownings have occurred, many with mysterious causes. Norris’ program notes mention several odd occurrences since 2020 that suggest possible supernatural incidents.

The opera opens with ominous stills and video images projected on a scrim, each showing various flooding episodes and resulting catastrophes. Behind the scrim, a 10-piece ensemble, conducted by Chaowen Ting, adeptly delivered Norris’ aggressive, devilishly pounding score, steadily heightening the tension.

Bass Kevin Thompson dominated the stage with his booming voice and powerful portrayal of Church Jenkins, an engineer at odds with County Mayor John Johns, sung by baritone Andrew Gilstrap. Though Gilstrap was no vocal match for Thompson, his antagonistic portrayal created growing stress leading up to the flooding events.

Like Thompson, mezzo-soprano Minka Wiltz grabbed the audience’s attention immediately as Odella Syrus, the mayor’s secretary. Her animated portrayal, variously profane and comic, helped to move the plot to its eerie conclusion while a pair of dancers moved about the stage as fluidly as ghosts.

Librettist Vaibu Mohan and composer Kitty Brazelton, winners of the Atlanta Opera’s 2024 96-Hour Opera Festival competition

For the 2024 competition, composer-librettist teams were given a theme to follow: artificial intelligence. Five were selected as finalists, and given the task of creating a 10-minute scene to be heard at a concert. In addition to the cash prize, the winner would be commissioned to create a new opera for the festival, to be premiered by Atlanta Opera two years later.

Judges for the 2024 competition were composer Carlos Simon, author Andrea Davis Pinkney, theater director and librettist Tazewell Thompson, dramaturg Paul Cremo, urban studies professor and public servant Doug Hooker, and Zvulun.

The five finalists were linked by a single theme: how humans and artificial intelligence can learn from each other. The competitors rehearsed and staged their 10-minute opera scene on June 16 for the June 17 event. Although each followed the guideline of incorporating artificial intelligence, the results were surprisingly varied.

The Binya and the Comya. Lauren McCall, composer; Mo Holmes, librettist. Drawn from Gullah Geechee, the language and culture of enslaved Africans brought to the Southeast coast (think Porgy and Bess), the scene addressed preservation of the traditional art of basket weaving by programming a humanoid through AI. Soprano Maria Clark reflected on her Binya (been here, an older and wiser person) role as a traditional basket weaver, imparting her art to the Comya (came here, a child or new person), an AI-driven humanoid.

As the musical language fluctuates between folkish and tensely dissonant, the Comya declares, “I can do it faster.” In the end, however, a Comya can’t do everything.

What is Love? An AI story. Timothy Amukele, composer; Jarrod Lee, librettist. After a devastating war, an android imparts what was learned about love a century ago. As Andy the android, soprano Brianna Samuels offers only “information,” not beauty or emotion. In a lyrical aria, Andy’s creator (baritone Randall Perkins) attempts to teach the android that “love is patient, love is kind, love can open heart and mind,” among other important lessons.

Frustrated that Andy still cannot express love, the creator reveals that his son was killed in the Great War. At the scene’s end, the android learns a new lesson, admitting to the creator that “I love you” while maintaining android identity.

Mimeo. George Tsz-Kwan Lam, composer; David Davila, librettist. Dramatic, repeated piano chords create a tense atmosphere as disaster looms. As the world nears imminent extinction from racism and imperialism, Montalan (tenor Pedro Carreras, Jr.) builds a replica of himself, an artist, to remember the past. “I captured all of the beauty I saw in the world,” he declares to his mimeo, “and I created it all for you, to be seen, to be heard, to be loved.”

With only 5 minutes and 22 seconds left before the fall of humanity, the question is posed about whether humanity should be remembered. “Mistakes were many, but also amends. We will not write ourselves off.”

Pianist Erika Tazawa accompanies mezzo-sopranos Hanan Davis and Xiaohan Chen in ‘Jaia-Smriti—Water Memory

The Creek Rises, or The Understudy. Evan Williams, composer; Ashlee Haze, librettist. In some of the most softly lyrical writing of the competition, an African-American poet (soprano Tiffany Uzoije) meets her protégé, an android whom she hopes will transfer her legacy before an impending apocalypse. Its message is understated yet profound: Art is a vehicle of truth, memories the most cerebral depth of the soul.

Jaia-Smriti—Water Memory. Kitty Brazelton, composer; Vaibu Mohan, librettist. As she starts to exhibit signs of dementia, Janani is given a memory processing operator as an aide, likening it to watering flowers. Although spare on staging and action, its vocal writing is visceral, and its urgent message deals more closely with present-day issues than any other finalist.

Following the competition, a scene was performed from Steele Roots, by 2022 competition winners Dave Ragland and Selda Sahin. Still in the workshop phase, the completed opera will be performed at the 2025 96-Hour Opera Festival.

The winners:

First prize: Jaia-Smriti—Water Memory

Runner-up: What is Love? An AI story

Audience favorite: What is Love? An AI story

The remaining eight contestants each receive $1,000. Travel, housing, singers, pianists, and rehearsal space were provided by Atlanta Opera and Morehouse College.