Words First: Talking Text in Opera

Brenda Huggins and Guerilla Opera

June 27, 2020 Keturah Stickann/Brenda Huggins Season 1 Episode 1
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Brenda Huggins and Guerilla Opera
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Brenda Huggins and Guerilla Opera
Jun 27, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Keturah Stickann/Brenda Huggins

In this inaugural episode, Keturah speaks with Brenda Huggins, the Director of Engagement Programs at Guerilla Opera in Boston.  They discuss Guerilla Opera's upcoming Libretto Writing Workshop (https://www.guerillaopera.org/gllibretto-workshop), Aristotle's Elements of Drama, and the missing link of dramaturgy in opera development.

Show Notes Transcript

In this inaugural episode, Keturah speaks with Brenda Huggins, the Director of Engagement Programs at Guerilla Opera in Boston.  They discuss Guerilla Opera's upcoming Libretto Writing Workshop (https://www.guerillaopera.org/gllibretto-workshop), Aristotle's Elements of Drama, and the missing link of dramaturgy in opera development.

Keturah 00:00

Neitzche said, “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside-down.”  Words.  Text.  This particularly human means of expressing oneself has the ability to lift up, tear down, cow, encourage, and inspire revolution.  I’ve always been a loquacious verbal communicator, and before I was a performer, and then a director, I wrote.  I actually thought for many years that I wanted to be a writer like my father, but like so many things we do in our youth, writing fell by the wayside, especially once I found music.


[Mozart playing on a piano] – 00:41


Keturah 00:42

Music dives into your soul quicker and immediately deeper than words can.  It’s reaches are visceral, animal, and so I followed it into dance, where my entire body learned to communicate a physical translation of music’s emotion.  After many years, dance led me to opera, where all of my great communication crushes suddenly came together in a gorgeous marriage.  Opera has been a joyous deep dive for the last twenty years, and I found that the importance of words and text has slowly but tenaciously risen to the surface again.  Yes, music is what makes opera “Opera,” but the more I was involved with new work, the more I became aware that it was nearly always the words that came first, even though the librettist was mentioned and discussed much less than the composer.  Being a champion of the underdog, I became specifically interested in talking about life and work and words with librettists.  I want to know what it’s like to write words for music, to know that what you put on paper will be the inspiration for operatic composition.  How does one begin to approach that, and where does inspiration come from in the first place.  How do we, as artists, decide what stories to tell, and how to communicate those tales in the most meaningful way?  How does writing words for opera feed the artistic soul?


[Mozart playing on a piano] – 02:05


Keturah 02:53

This first episode is coming out much earlier than I had originally planned, and I think that’s a good thing.  I’ve spoken to so many artists recently who are in such a creative funk right now, and I’m not immune.  For the past few months being stuck in my house, my jobs going away, theaters shuttering, I felt my creativity seep out through my feet.  I stirred the pot, trying to get something to rise to the top, but even when I see a glimmer, I inevitably let it sink back down.  This podcast was most likely no different.  My interest in talking with librettists about operatic storytelling was consistently muted by my insides churning with dread, by this multi-layered trauma we are collectively living through.  But I suddenly had something come across my social media sites the other day that kicked me back into gear.  Guerrilla opera, a small ensemble opera company in Boston, has a workshop coming up that allows for creative space to learn how to write scripts for opera. I’d never seen a workshop specifically for librettists before, and the timing was just too good.  I pushed myself forward and ended up having a wonderful conversation with Brenda Huggins, the director of Engagement Programs and a resident stage director and dramaturge at Guerrilla Opera, where she went into detail about all this workshop has to offer.  Here’s the interview, which I recorded last Thursday, June 25, 2020.  Brenda, I am so happy you could come on to my very first podcast episode today.  The timing worked out so well,, so welcome!


Brenda 04:25

Thank you.  Thank you for having me.  I’m very excited to talk about Guerrilla Opera and our upcoming lab.


Keturah 04:31

Yeah.  Me too.  But can you start off actually, back up a little bit, and tell us a little bit about Guerrilla Opera in general?


Brenda 04:39

Yes, absolutely!  Guerrilla Opera is a new music ensemble in the Boston area.  It’s led by co-artistic directors Aliana de la Guardia and Julia Noulin-Merat, and we commission pieces specifically for the chamber ensemble.  And I’m relatively new in my role as the director of engagement programs and ensemble member, and so it’s been a really wonderful experience getting to learn how the Guerrillas operate and the…this focus and mission on really dismantling the traditional ways that operas are created and presented and produced.  And I was brought on to really think about how does the ensemble continue to reimagine the relationship with the audience, and also building a community of artists interested in this work as well.  So, that’s what brought us to this lab.


Keturah 05:41

When you say “Ensemble,” and I saw this on your website as well, can you talk to me about what it means to be an ensemble as a company versus a company that brings in people for each show?


Brenda 05:54

So, the foundation of the ensemble is a group of artists, singers, and resident designers such as Julia, or Keithlynn Parkman, who is our resident lighting designer. And they design all of the shows.  Aliana, the soprano, performs in all of the shows, and we have other singers as well, and instrumentalists, and so they’re kind of the core group of the ensemble.  And what’s really exciting about this, especially for me coming with this theater background, is that it’s like a repertory company, like an actual repertory company where you have the same players who are developing that relationship with each other.  There’s no conductor because it is a chamber music ensemble, and so it’s really important for the members to have a working language where they can create really exciting art together.


Keturah 06:50

God, that happens so seldom in opera.  What a great way to actually make work, I think.


Brenda 06:56

I’m not familiar with any other company that does that.  I would be interested to learn about it.


Keturah 07:01

Right?  So, is the Guerrilla Lab a usual part of Guerrilla Opera’s work, or is… Do you have workshops or is this a new part of the company?


Brenda 07:12

It’s brand new.  We’re very excited.


Keturah 07:15

That’s so great, yeah.


Brenda 07:16

I know that both Aliana and Julia have a toe in education in different ways.  Julia teaches design at Pace University and Aliana has her own vocal studio.  And so, with my background in higher education and creative youth development and artist training, this is a really exciting collaboration to bring this program.  I think it really also came out of our need to connect with our artist community, especially. Now that our season is so uncertain.  With all of the social distancing, and not being able to plan a season…


Keturah 07:56



Brenda 07:57

…wanting to have programming that connects us and really focuses on the art making and the Guerrilla process of art making.  And so, we are very excited to see how this program goes and then continue to build from that.


Keturah 08:14

Do you…so what was the inspiration for doing, specifically a workshop for librettists and about writing scripts and libretto for opera?


Brenda 08:25

I thought about, if I was going to take a summer intensive, what would I want it to be?  I thought how exciting to really focus on the nuts and bolts of the text in the opera.  And, in a more traditional sense, in the creation of opera, the text comes first.  The librettist writes the text, the composer sets the text.


Keturah 08:48

That’s right.


Brenda 08:49

Yes, and we recognize that that is a more traditional way, but what it does is it allows us to extract the text from the opera and dissect it and look at it and discuss it and then formulate a pathway and process for each individual artist to be able to connect with their own ideas and put them to words. So…it also came from a workshop that I taught at the Haverhill library this last April.  We called it poetry in opera, and we looked at the librettos from previously commissioned pieces by Guerrilla Opera, and discussed the text, and I led some poetry writing exercises.  And, it was such a wonderful opportunity to learn who are the Guerrilla fans.  Who is our community?  And we had all of these librettists and composers and artists really interested in this work, and so this workshop really grew from that.  It grew from knowing that there is a community of people who are interested in writing for opera, and the application has been open for three days and we’ve already had fourteen applicants, which is just…


Keturah 10:01

I was going to ask you, yeah.  I think that’s really exciting.


Brenda 10:02

…beyond our wildest imagination.  Yes! Absolutely!


Keturah 10:06

How many participants are you hoping to have in this workshop?


Brenda 10:11

Um…I think twelve is a good max.  Anything more than that, then each person kind of gets a little bit less personal attention.  And so the format is a six-week, weekly synchronous two-hour video conference.  You know, this is all happening remotely over video conference.


Keturah 10:29

As we’ve all learned how to do.


Brenda 10:31

As we’ve all learned.  Yes.  But then there’ll also be the asynchronous learning and exercises and tasks in the time between when we’re meeting because I have…I get so much…the Zoom fatigue is real.  I mean, I couldn’t plan more than two hours of us sitting down all together int hat video conference a week.  But there’ll be plenty of time for reading articles and even sharing feedback on weekly submissions of our writing.  Because it takes a long time to go through twelve people’s writing and give them feedback.


Keturah 11:10



Brenda 11:11

So, using that asynchronous time to develop that community is something I’m looking to build.


Keturah 11:17

I think that’s wonderful. I see so many composer’s workshops, and I really don’t think I’ve ever seen one that caters specifically to writing words for opera, so I think it’s really such an important thing.  You know, I’m starting this podcast because I feel like the words themselves are something that we don’t talk about enough, and they operate as such an inspiration for the music on so many levels.  And in the best situation, I think it becomes such a symbiotic relationship.  And so, that collaboration…will they be working with composers, or are you just working with writers at this time?


Brenda 11:56

So, for this lab, we’re focusing just on the text.


Keturah 12:00



Brenda 12:01

But they will have the opportunity to discuss that process with guest speakers that I’ll bring in from the Guerrilla Opera repertoire.


Keturah 12:08



Brenda 12:09

So composer and librettists will come in, and we’ll look at their work.  They’ll talk about that process, and then the program will culminate in a showcase where vocalists will do a live reading of an aria or a duet, or whatever each participant would like to submit as their final showcase piece.  And we’re looking at some really innovative ways of doing that.  It’s still in the development process.  We’ll see.


Keturah 12:38

Will the showcase be open to the public to be able to come in and listen?


Brenda 12:42

Yes, absolutely.  I think it’s so valuable for artists to have a space to talk about their work and their process and share it with an audience.  I think it’s a really important part of the process.  And so it’s interesting that you brought up this training and opportunities for composers, but part of why we wanted to create this program is because conservatory training is so siloed.


Keturah 13:05



Brenda 13:06

And opera is so multi-disciplinary.  That’s what really draws me to the art form.  I have a background in theater, I did train as a classical vocalist.  I’m also a puppetry artist…


Keturah 13:18

I saw that!  That fascinates me.  I love that.


Brenda 13:20

Yes! [Laughter]. Well, obviously I’m a puppetry artist.


Keturah 13:24

Well, yes.


Brenda 13:25

[Laughter].  Well, again it comes back to the multi-disciplinary nature of opera and telling stories through these many different vibrant, exciting mediums.  And so puppetry is a really important part of that as well.


Keturah 13:42

That’s great.  Um…is there anything else you’d like to add about the workshop or about what you’re hoping to get out of this experience?


Brenda 13:51

I think we’re going to learn a lot as an ensemble about what the needs are of this community of artists who want to dip their toe into this work.  We’re trying to create a space where artists with many different backgrounds…so far we’ve had filmmakers apply, vocalists, composers, poets, and so how…this is my challenge as a facilitator.  How do I create a learning environment for all of these wildly different but wildly exciting and interesting artists to come together in this work.  So that’s what we’re really excited about is learning and developing this community so that we can continue with this programming moving forward.


Keturah 14:35

It sounds like a really delicious challenge. I think it’s really exciting.  So, to recap, it’s a six weekly…six week, weekly, two-hour on line sessions between July 12 and August 23?


Brenda 14:49

Yes, and we haven’t set the date and time yet because we want it to be as inclusive as possible.  So, in the application process, when you apply, there’s a poll that asks you the days and the weeks and times that you’re available.  So, that allowed us to be as inclusive to people’s availability as well.


Keturah 15:10

Sure.  And, Friday, July 3rd is the deadline to apply?


Brenda 15:14

That’s correct, yes.


Keturah 15:16

Okay, that’s coming up at the end of the week. Yeah, that’s…


Brenda 15:18

It is.  It is.  And it’s not a super intensive application.  This is something too in our approach to this workshop is that a lot of other libretto or opera creation programs expect you to come to the process pitching some type of project.  And that’s really not what this is about at all.  I mean, yes, if people have ideas brewing and they want to explore that within the program, they can, but really it’s about foundational…removing barriers of our own personal artistic process, talking with artists, co learning, peer learning.  And the idea is that by the end of the program, you will have written text for at least one aria, at least one duet or scene, and perhaps a chorus or ensemble number.  The idea is that we’ll explore dramaturgy, which, as a dramaturge, I’m very excited because I think that’s a huge missing link in a lot of opera creation processes.


Keturah 16:19



Brenda 16:24

I was watching one of the opera companies this summer was having all of these industry talks, and it wasn’t until the third talk on the creation of new opera that someone actually said the word, “dramaturgy.”  So, any way to kind of highlight that practice is very exciting to me, so we’ll focus on that.  We’ll also talk about and explore Aristotle’s elements of drama because I found that, especially artists coming from music backgrounds, this is not a process that they have really delved into, this idea of character.  The importance of character in drama; the importance of plot in drama, and the word “plot” and “narrative” can be defined very specifically or very loosely, but it’s still there.  An opera is a story through time.  Theater is a story through space and time, but the music is an art form that tells a story in time, and so therefore there is a narrative.  That’s how human beings perceive an experience through time.  And so whether that’s an abstract narrative…and I think sometimes opera creators get too caught up in their concept, too caught up in… “there is no narrative.  It’s all about this idea that I have.”  And so, I think using Aristotle’s elements of drama is really valuable when breaking down the different parts of what’s important, to bringing a story to the stage, bringing this performance into a space to share with an audience through the medium.


Keturah 18:10

I love that.  It’s so important to start with those tools.  You have to know the rules and the tools in order to break them and throw them away, yeah?


Brenda 18:18

Yes, absolutely.


Keturah 18:20

So, Brenda, where can people go on line to find out more about this workshop?


Brenda 18:24

Yes, so if you go to Guerrilla Opera dot org, and we use the Spanish spelling of Guerrilla because it’s meant to be like Guerrilla warfare or protest.  So it’s g-u-e-r-i-l-l-a opera dot org.  and then on the homepage you’ll see a link to workshops, and that has all the information about our workshops including the labs.


Keturah 18:49

Fantastic.  Brenda Huggins, thank you so much for coming in and speaking to me.  This has been just a huge pleasure.  I want to thank Brenda again for coming on to speak about the Librettist’s Workshop.  The deadline to apply is Friday, July 3rd, and anyone interested should go to their website, Guerrilla Opera dot org.  That’s g-u-e-r-i-l-l-a opera dot org, backslash workshops for more information.  Next week I’m chatting with Gene Scheer, a librettist and songwriter known for his work with Jake Heggie, Joby Talbot, Jennifer Higdon, among others, and a close personal friend.  Gene and I have worked together on four world premieres, and I’ve been very lucky to also direct a number of his other works.  I’m extremely biased in saying this, but I think both his adaptations of Moby-Dick and Cold Mountain are some of the most beautiful, lyrical distillations of literature in existence.  I hope you’ll join me as we talk about adapting classics, discuss telling American stories, and most likely recount some life-in-the-theater from our time on the road together.  I’m really looking forward to it.


[Mozart playing on a piano – 19:57]


Keturah 20:03

This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee. Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband for keeping the dog quiet.  Thanks for listening, and until the next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.


[Mozart playing on a piano – 20:22]