Girls find their voice by writing an original opera

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PORTLAND — Telling an impactful story by writing an original opera probably doesn’t seem like the most natural medium for a group of teenage girls.

But that’s what happened in a collaboration between Opera Maine, the Telling Room and the School of Music at the University of Southern Maine.

The result is “Girl in Six Beats,” with performances scheduled for this weekend. Ellen Chickering, who is directing the debut, called it “a genre that touches people emotionally in many ways.”

“Girl in Six Beats” focuses on teen suicide and was initially commissioned by Opera Maine. The libretto was written by a group of girls from Portland, Gorham, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, who took part in a program called An Opera Is Born of Our Community at the Telling Room last summer.

The chamber opera, or opera in one act, will premiere at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at Corthell Concert Hall on USM’s Gorham Campus. Another performance will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students and seniors.

In “Girl in Six Beats” the writers tell the story of a teen girl who attempts suicide due in large part to a feeling of voicelessness.

“Prompted by her encounters with various opinionated characters, all eager to design her destiny, (the main character finally) asserts her own voice for the first time,” a press release from the School of Music states.

To write the opera, the girls took part in an immersive 30-hour opera camp last summer. After the story was written, the music was composed by Dan Sonenberg, a composer-in-residence at USM.

The lead role is played by Rachel Shukan, a senior voice performance major at USM, who has been in several USM opera productions and also with Opera Maine.

The writers of “Girl in Six Beats” include Kaspar Wilder from Portland High School; Emily Greene from St. Bridget School, also located in Portland; Ella Briman and Makena Deveraux from Cape Elizabeth High School; Zoe Sliwinski from Scarborough High School; and Emelia Bailey from Gorham Middle School.

“I knew that this was going to be something special. It captured my imagination from the start,” said Caroline Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine. “It’s been so inspiring to work with these talented teenagers and to see (their story) brought to life through Dan Sonenberg’s composition.”

Marjolaine Whittlesey, from the Telling Room, said the idea of having local teens write an original opera was Koelker’s, and since “the mission of the Telling Room is to empower youth through writing and to share their voices with the world, it seemed like a great fit.”

“And, as an actor and creative writing teacher I was immediately enthralled with the idea and excited to lead the writing portion of the project,” Whittlesey said this week. “Our seven teens came together without knowing much about each other or opera, and spent five days learning to write collaboratively and produced a wonderful piece.”

The girls “bonded quickly and were empowered by the idea of being able to share what was on their mind,” Whittlesey said. “I invited them to dig into the realities of being a teenager today. They all agreed on the theme of voicelessness and built their characters and plot line around that.”

In putting this piece before the public Whittlesey hopes “audiences will see the magic and importance of collaborative work. I (also) hope that both the content and the actual project will bring to light how much teens have to say and how we should be sure to ask and listen to what’s on their mind.”

For Sonenberg, the chance to compose an original opera written by teen girls “just sounded like a really great opportunity. The opportunity to collaborate with young writers in an innovative program and to participate in spreading the love of opera to a new generation just seemed irresistible.”

He said “what opera can do better than (any) other (art) form is convey the inner emotional life of a character. Opera (can) more viscerally present the human elements of a story, (which is why) opera excels at telling emotional, epic, larger-than-life stories.”

Sonenberg said the girls who wrote “Girl in Six Beats” were “incredible. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But this group of writers (was able to create) a very strong libretto (and) my personal interaction with the group was great.”

He said he hopes audiences are “moved, and swept up in the story. Opera should always be an emotional experience (and) I think this particular opera has a very interesting mixture of dark subject matter and humor.”

“The (girls) have told a compelling story and one that ultimately has an uplifting message that I think could speak directly to teenagers,” Sonenberg said. “There is a point of view in this opera that I never could have conjured by myself … that gives this piece a special kind of vitality and relevance.”

He said the attempted suicide in the story is “never explicitly mentioned and the real focus of the opera is on the (lead character) learning to find her own voice and to make a conscious decision to live.”

For Chickering, “the topic of the opera, teen suicide, is a very real part of these students’ lives and opera is a very powerful way to tell the story. … ‘Girl in Six Beats’ is an incredible combination of community resources.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Rachel Shukan, left, plays the lead role in a debut opera written by local teen girls. The show, “Girl in Six Beats,” which premeries at USM on Saturday, April 21, also stars Christie Paul.

Appearing in the new chamber opera, “Girl in Six Beats,” which premieres at USM this weekend are, from left, Katherine Leahy, Lynnea Harding, Rachel Shukan, David Myers and Samantha Loomis.

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