Renowned beatboxer Nicole Paris remembers when her creative impulses were being stifled by other beatboxers. “ ‘You need to sound like this; you can’t do that,’ they kept telling me. I hated the idea that I shouldn’t express my own individual gift.”
Many would say that opera has also been trapped in a box — a rarified art form that attracts a small audience of well-heeled patrons and is increasingly out of touch with contemporary concerns.
The Santa Fe Opera has teamed up with Paris and composer Augusta Read Thomas on Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, a commissioned piece designed to help change that identity and attract a younger, more diverse audience. It’s the first salvo in a multi-company initiative called Opera for All Voices, and its world premiere is at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Oct. 26. In keeping with modern attention spans, the performance is expected to be about 80 minutes long, with no intermission.
“The first thing that came to me was the sound world for Sweet Potato,” Thomas says. “I wanted it to have a vocal kaleidoscope. It starts with beatbox and opera as two separate worlds: Nicole plays The Guest Artist, who is onstage doing a beatbox show when suddenly an opera starts up behind her. She’s very skeptical at first, but then gets intrigued by it and dives into the story about halfway through. There’s a sonic tableau that integrates the two worlds, using every kind of vocalism I could think of, including laughter, animal sounds, nature sounds, and Sprechstimme [a vocalization between speaking and song], in addition to beatboxing and operatic singing.”
Sweet Potato is not just intended to kick opera out of its box. It’s opened a new world to beatboxer Paris as well. “I don’t read music, and the first time Augusta showed me this enormous score, I got overwhelmed and started crying,” Paris says. “Plus she wanted me to sing, which I’d never done before and was totally scary. But we’ve been working on it for more than two and a half years, and now I even use more singing and vocal sounds in my own performances.”
The opera begins on a rooftop garden, where Sweet Potato, a charismatic wild child, charms and challenges the resident birds, bees, and other fauna. When she kicks the sun out of the sky, she must undertake a journey that brings important lessons, often told in a comedic style. “It was important that Sweet Potato be witty and entertaining, but with a serious purpose underneath,” Thomas explains. To that end, librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer’s text addresses themes that include respect for nature, friendship and teamwork, community values, the wisdom of older generations, empathy, and personal transformation.
Soprano and former SFO apprentice Amy Owens plays Sweet Potato. “At first,” she says, “I was annoyed with Sweet Potato, who is brilliant, curious, overactive, and disruptive. ‘What a pain in the butt you are,’ I remember thinking. Then I realized that Sweet Potato’s an archetype as much as she is a character — the universal child who has to go on a journey and take on responsibility in order to grow up.
“About 80 percent of my music is what we’re calling ‘captured improvisation.’ It has these musical bookends, which are precisely notated, with space in between where I sing the text differently each time, using suggestions that Gusty [Thomas] has. I love the idea that our performances will be different every time.”
Owens is partnered by baritone Dominik Belavy as 89, the hummingbird who is Sweet Potato’s best friend and has the unenviable task of trying to keep her in line. Mezzo-soprano Briana Elyse Hunter, also a former apprentice, plays Grandfather Bee-keeper and Grandmother Seed-Keeper, with Dawn Lura as The Actor. Music director Carmen Flórez-Mansi leads the cast, a seven-person instrumental ensemble, and a 15-member children’s chorus; John de Los Santos is the stage director.
There is no word yet on whether other companies in the consortium will exercise their options to stage Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, but Santa Fe Opera plans to revive it in May 2020 as its annual touring production. It’s slated for multi-day residencies in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and El Paso, with casting and other specifics to be announced later. ◀
▼ Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun
▼ 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets $20; 505-988-1234, lensic.org