High School Playwrights And Young Composers Make Tiny Operas For KC Fringe

Jul 17, 2015

Linda Ade Brand has been involved with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City for decades, so she knows many of singers, actors composers, directors and teachers in town. About a year ago, she had a big idea that would put the work of high school students on stage. The result is a KC Fringe Festival show, "Words+Music," that turns short plays by high school students into a night of tiny operas.

She knew about the Coterie Theatre’s seminars for young playwrights, and wondered: Could those high school students write monologues and short scenes she could then take to the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, which runs several programs for composition students.

Linda Ade Brand
Credit Courtesy of Linda Ade Brand

Let’s get 10 pieces and 10 composers and put them together, she thought. Then she would read the pieces and find the right singer. "I would, think, hmm, what mezzo-soprano do I know out of our Lyric Opera family who would be the right age and the right type, and we put them all together."

Over the last year, the plays and music were written and workshopped several times, including at a master class at the UMKC Conservatory with Academy Award-winning composer John Corigliano and Mark Adamo, librettist for "Little Women" and "Lysistrata." Now the piece is ready for the Fringe Festival, and sounding better than Brand imagined a year ago.

"They’re just fascinating," she says of the 10 pieces, each about five minutes long. "They’re so varied. It makes for a really interesting evening of theater. It’s like going to a little poetry slam, only it’s sung. They're just little tiny moments in time. I'm just really proud of everybody."

Playwright Annaliese Schroeder will be a junior at Holden High School. She wrote two of the plays but didn’t know what kind of music they would end up with.

"I had to have some confidence, just hoping I’d written it with enough oompf to send across the emotions I was feeling when I was writing it, or that I would want an actor to be able to portray," Schroeder says. 

Apparently she did, because the composers got it. Especially with one piece, told from the perspective of an angry husband.

"It’s a man’s piece," she notes. "Just the way they did the music, it’s dark and it fits the tone perfectly. It was almost like I didn’t know what I wanted until heard it, and then when I heard it, it was exactly like it was supposed to be."

If that's what it felt like for playwrights when they first heard the music, something similar happened for the composers when they first heard someone singing the notes they’d written.

"They were kind of wide-eyed when the singers started to open their mouths and sing — 'Oh my gosh, this is really coming alive,'" says Robert Pherigo, a member of the New Ear Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, who accompanies the pieces on piano. He’s been part of the process since the beginning, and one of the singers is his son, Lucas Pherigo.

In a piece called “Memories of a Court Jester,” Lucas Pherigo’s character is a disillusioned comedian.

"It’s been very fun to work on strictly from acting point of view," says the younger Pherigo, "but also (to think about), 'How do I shape this musically to portray what character is going through?'" 

And for the Lyric Opera’s Ashley Beth Burnett, getting to work with living composers was part of the fun.

Lyric Opera singer Ashley Beth Burnett
Credit Courtesy Lyric Opera

"As an opera singer, so much of what we sing is by composers who have been dead for 200 years," she says. "So I never get to ask Mozart why he put in a certain note, or how he wrote in a certain key."

Now that her idea has come to life, Brand says Fringe is the perfect place for it.

"They’re just new and fresh, and some of them are kind of edgy," she says. "We did not want to put any, ‘Oh no you can’t write about that’ parameters on these projects. It just seemed like the right place to show off a bunch of brand new songs/arias in a really great forum."

The KC Fringe Festival presents Words+Music starting Saturday, July 18, at 8 p.m. at the Heartland Forum At Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri. A complete listing of performances at the Kansas City Fringe Festival, July 16-26, is here.