Kate Soper returns to opera with a story medieval and modern
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Kate Soper returns to opera with a story medieval and modern
Kate Soper, third from the right, and fellow artists prepare for the premiere of Soper’s opera, “The Hunt,” at the Miller Theater at Columbia University in New York, July 27, 2023. “The Hunt,” set to premiere this month, mines ancient lore about unicorns, but asks questions of today, such as: Who has power, and who has rights? (Amir Hamja/ The New York Times)

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent summer morning in New York, three sopranos, a director and a small crew gathered for a rehearsal of “The Hunt,” a new opera by Kate Soper.

One soprano had a ukulele stored offstage. Another had a violin close at hand. And a third, placed center stage at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, mimed speaking into a smartphone as the day’s blocking work began.

While that character, Fleur, primped and preened for an imagined camera as if on a livestream, she bragged about her “social media fluency” on an address to a “royal hiring academy.” All three sopranos were creating separate, self-taped auditions, for a show within the show.

And yet: They were clearly doing so in some bygone era.

“The King seeks spotless maidens for the hunt of the unicorn,” the sopranos recited in unison, “whose conquest will bring riches to our kingdom, expansion of our realm and everlasting power over all our enemies.”

So far, so anachronistic. All of this, though, was precisely on brand for Soper, the composer and librettist of “The Hunt,” who was also in the auditorium that day, keeping a close eye on the early rehearsal for the opera, which premieres at the Miller on Oct. 12.

Ever since her witty and sophisticated chamber opera “Here Be Sirens,” from 2014, Soper has been plying fields similar to the one she has cultivated in “The Hunt.” She consistently borrows ancient literary texts and tropes — freely quoting from and playing with, say, Aristotle or Christine de Pizan — in dramatic works that have contemporary urgency and comic thrust.

“The Hunt” revives texts from Hildegard von Bingen and Thibaut de Champagne, among others. (On some occasions, Soper also writes her own translations.) And, as in “Sirens,” the instrumentation is limited to what the soprano performers can play onstage while also singing her complex music.

Because of pandemic delays, this new opera is Soper’s second major stage premiere of 2023: In February, her grandest dramatic creation to date, “The Romance of the Rose,” made its belated debut at Long Beach Opera in California.

“Probably this is the only year of my life in which I’ll have two opera premieres,” Soper said, self-deprecatingly, with a laugh during a telephone interview. Still, there’s nothing that suggests she won’t remain in demand — in New York, on the West Coast or even elsewhere.

After all, her work is readily available to curious listeners. An archival video of Morningside Opera’s scrappy, celebrated production of “Sirens” — which includes Soper in its cast — can be streamed for free on Vimeo. And on YouTube, Long Beach Opera’s more recent highlight reel from “Rose” shows Soper expanding her compositional palette.

In “Rose” there is the kind of experimentalism that Soper has regularly engaged in as co-director of the cutting-edge Wet Ink Ensemble. But there are also numbers that approach the hummable quality of show tunes.

“This is not the kind of opera I thought I would write when I was in grad school,” Soper said. “That’s part of what ‘Sirens’ is about, feeling just sort of disgruntled and ashamed of some of my musical impulses: ‘No one’s going to take me seriously if I write this stupid show-tunes stuff.’”

She added that the character she sang in “Sirens” was “struggling with this idea that you can’t have pleasure and intellect at the same time, or something. Like most people, I just sort of have gotten over my completely pointless hangups I had in my 20s or early 30s.”

Soprano Christiana Cole, who plays Briar in “The Hunt,” said that Soper’s writing is some of the richest that they have sung, in a career that has encompassed both contemporary classical music and Elton John’s stage adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“I have done so many new pieces in my career,” Cole said. “Sometimes there are big hits and sometimes there are big misses.” But in Soper’s music, they added, avant-garde density merges with tunefulness in rare fashion.

“It’s as though Kate has a microscope, and she uses it on every measure,” Cole said. “The level of detail is not just incredible because it’s maximalist and baroque at the same time, but it’s amazing because it sounds good.”

In “The Hunt,” Cole also plays the principal ukulele part, in songs that, they said, are not easily scanned for patterns.

“The way the words sit on this very minimalist, repetitive, beautiful ukulele part that I’m playing — the text sits differently every time,” Cole said. “For the audience, the feeling is that you are both listening to something that is ancient, that has been around forever, and that also does something different to your body than any music you’ve ever heard.”

There is asymmetry, too, in Soper’s approach to contemporary political commentary in “The Hunt.” While the opera mines ancient lore about unicorns and how to catch them — per canonic literature, virgins are the best bait — it also tweaks that received wisdom through contemporary discussions surrounding gender presentation. By consciously setting out to cast a nonbinary soprano for the role of Briar, Soper hoped to welcome transgender rights to her earlier explorations of gender.

“Sirens,” Soper said, asked, “How do you go through life when you want to change who you are but can’t? How do you deal with expectations, based on how you helplessly present yourself?”

By contrast, she sees “Rose” as being “a bit more open: like ‘How do you stay in love?’ And ‘Who are you in love?’ And ‘How do you try to empathetically perceive the world, in other people, without constantly getting wrapped up in your own tendencies?’”

“The Hunt” is less concerned with those internal questions, and more with threats from the outside. “Certain new norms and ways of behaving — and ways of reacting to thought — seem suddenly medieval,” Soper said. “Who has power, and who has rights?”

This opera, she added, is ultimately about how to “survive in a culture that is specifically hostile to what you are. And what do you do? What’s the solution?”

In the interview, Soper didn’t want to give an answer that would spoil “The Hunt.” But the production’s director, Ashley Tata, who also staged Soper’s “Ipsa Dixit” at the Miller, pointed to the fact that the theater’s listing for the show credits an intimacy choreographer — so it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the opera embraces physical pleasure.

Soper said that there were “two things I felt I could offer, despite the lack of optimism I feel.”

First, “When someone tells you that you’re disgusting and shameful and you don’t own your body, you can use your body to give and receive pleasure,” she said. And second, “You can say: I can do what I want with my body. You actually do have autonomy.”

The intimacy among performers in “The Hunt” is remarkable, in part because of the chaste turn that much of contemporary opera has pursued in a politically fraught era. By contrast, Soper’s characters are always alive to the possibility of pleasure, even when the path forward is murky.

Also enjoyable is how literate her characters are in exploring their identities. “That tends to happen in my operas, that there’s a self-conscious readership going on,” Soper said. “In ‘Here Be Sirens,’ my character was constantly reading and referring to books — as if that was going to help her.”

These investigations are also laced with humor — another seemingly lost art in American opera. And Soper hopes that the pleasure she allows for characters translates to enjoyment for audiences, too.

“Somehow it’s important to me,” she said. “I’m also going to write some dirty jokes in this opera. And I am a woman — whatever, deal with it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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