New production examining the life of Sarah Winchester to make local debut at UC San Diego
by Jeff Terich
Opera is an art form steeped in tragedy. Suicide. Infidelity. Tuberculosis. Murderous, cuckolded clowns. Yet it’s not often that those narratives stretch beyond the stage and into the long-term socio-political implications of those tragedies.
Inheritance—a multimedia chamber opera being staged Oct. 24, 26 and 27 at UC San Diego’s Prebys Experimental Theater—is a work whose composers seek to change that approach. With music composed by Lei Liang and libretto (text) by Matt Donovan—led by music director Steven Schick and featuring soprano Susan Narucki—Inheritance spotlights America’s epidemic of gun violence via the story of Sarah Winchester. The widow of William Wirt Winchester, whose namesake was one of the earliest mass-produced repeating rifles, Sarah Winchester became famous for construction of the Winchester Mystery House, a curious estate built to confuse the spirits that haunted her.
“In the opening scene, Sarah Winchester is already old, sitting in her house where she’s trying to trap the ghosts that haunt her,” Liang says of the production. “The music begins very dramatically. And these are sounds that only Sarah can hear. She’s haunted by the deaths caused by her late husband’s rifle.”
This isn’t the first opera to address contemporary social issues from Liang and Narucki. The two artists previously worked together on Cuatro Corridos, an opera dealing with human trafficking that was nominated for a Latin Grammy award. Both of them have a similar outlook on opera, in that it should be able to transcend entertainment.
“We all share the idea that new music shouldn’t be separate from social issues,” Liang says. “It can serve the purpose of giving the voiceless a voice. “These issues are so urgent. We wanted to respond to them in a humane, sophisticated way.”
Narucki adds, however, that the key to a successful modern opera is thinking outside of the expected norms. A performance that’s meant to be staged in a smaller venue, as Inheritance is, can open up more possibilities and thus more people hearing its message.
“Over the past five years, more and more people are figuring out how to create stories relevant to social issues that connect past and present,” Narucki says. “Opera’s been around for 500 years, and operas that are successful on a smaller scale are more fluid. Making every production to be heard in a 3,000-seat auditorium is not always financially viable.”
Even though Inheritance isn’t being housed in a large auditorium, it’s still intended to leave an impact, not just because of its underlying message but because of its production. In addition to Narucki, the production features music performed by clarinetist Anthony Burr, bassist Mark Dresser, guitarist Pablo Gomez, harpsichordist Takae Onishi, and trumpeter Stephanie Richards, and art design by Ligia Bouton, including a backdrop of the famed Winchester Mystery House itself.
The creators of Inheritance promise a multimedia experience that steps outside of what can be expected of an operatic production. But Narucki has her own specific hopes for what kind of impression the work leaves on the audience.
“If one person sees this and is moved to rethink possibilities of how we experience and interact with the world, then I think we’ve succeeded.”