Lisa Neher & Kendra Leonard present strong women in micro-opera festival

For over a year, theatres and opera houses have been closed. The American singer and composer Lisa Neher and librettist Kendra Leonard therefore organized the One Voice Project Virtual Micro Opera Festival. With few resources they realized a varied series of five mini-operas for unaccompanied solo voice.

Lisa Neher in ‘Momentum’

With their initiative, Neher and Leonard want to offer us some beauty and give themselves and others a chance to practice their craft. The ladies have thought carefully about the production. Once you’ve applied for a – free – online festival pass, you gain access to a load of information about the creators, the operas and the performers. From March 22 through March 26, they send a link to a new world premiere every day. The operas are offered for free on the pay as you can principle and remain available on YouTube.

The subjects are very diverse and partly arrived at in consultation with the singers. For example, the tenor Hugo Vera moved to Los Angeles in the middle of the pandemic. Leonard incorporates the associated anxiety, loneliness and confusion into her libretto. In Wide Awake in the New City, we see Vega somewhat lost among relocation boxes and haphazardly placed furniture in his new apartment.

‘Sorry we had to drive so terribly long,’ he sings to his cat Eloise. He mourns the loss of his friends and frets about his new job, in which he will have to teach virtually. But as soon as he steps out onto his balcony, the prospect of singing in the renowned Disney Hall one day cheers him up: ‘I can do this. In time we’ll figure it all out’, he muses in appealing coloratura.

The three following operas have a feminist-historical tinge. Par for the Course is about the athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956). She excelled in many disciplines, but became best known as a phenomenal golfer. When she qualified for the 1948 U.S. Open, the rules were abruptly changed so that only men were allowed to participate. The opera zooms in on the moment she learns – from the press – that she is excluded from participation.

Dressed in an orange blouse and black & white pepitre-skirt, soprano Audrey Yoder expresses her frustration. In flawlessly intonated, large intervals, she denounces men’s fear of her achievements: ‘I can even beat you at javelin throwing!’ – Behind her we see archival footage of the javelin throw with which Zaharias won a gold Olympic medal in 1932. Self-assured, Yoder lists her many successes, then quotes the criticism that female athletes are ‘unnatural’ on a listless, descending glissando. She ends on a powerful defiant tone: ‘Is there anything I do not play? – Yes, with dolls!’

Sung by Lisa Neher herself, Momentum is about the 1967 Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer (b. 1947) registered for the run under her initials. When an official noticed her, he tried to forcibly remove her from the race. She finished it nonetheless and five years later women were officially allowed as participants. Neher announces the opera somewhat emotionally; she is an avid marathon runner herself. The camera trails her along desolate streets and industrial estates, while she intersperses her sung indignation with rhythmical huffing and puffing.

The mezzo-soprano Margaret O’Connell sounds equally determined in Woman Waits With Sword. The noble Alberte-Barbe d’Ernécourt (1607-1660) defended her estate as Chevalier de Baslemont against French, Swedish and Croatian soldiers. – And against an intruder who one day thought he could take possession of her castle. With no more than a feathered tricorn hat, O’Connell portrays this man, ridiculing his macho behaviour. Finally, she challenges him to a duel: with sword drawn and arm raised, she looks into the camera. Bring it on!’

In the fifth opera, Now Available, we return to the here and now. The tenor Zach Finkelstein seems locked in his cramped room. Desperate, he looks out the window and sings about the closed theatres, the lack of bright spots, the fear of losing his skill as a singer. ‘I’m still singing… in my living-room.’ Leonard infuses his text with some criticism about opera companies that rarely offered compensation for cancelled performances. ‘Can I ever trust them again?’

The Voice Project Virtual Micro Opera Festival is a great example of grassroots music theatre. Without subsidy or advanced technology, the makers have created five wonderful miniatures in which everything is just right. No matter how simple the setting, the lighting, camera work and sound recording are spot on. Neher’s vocal lines are varied and imitable, without being kitschy, and are a perfect match for the often rapidly changing emotions. The singers are excellent, O’Connell standing out with her exceptionally empathic portrayal of the female Chevalier.

Go see and hear!

This review was first published in Dutch on the culture site Theaterkrant

Liked my review? A donation, however small, is welcome through PayPal, or direct money transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. Thanks!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Lisa Neher & Kendra Leonard present strong women in micro-opera festival

  1. Clare Shore says:

    I’m delighted that you have written about this marvelous project, Thea. In my opinion, all aspects of the five productions were professionally created and executed, down to the realistic staging, not to mention that each vocal performance was sung a cappella with near-perfect intonation and pitch security. Thank you for spreading the word!

    Liked by 1 person

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