• Sat. Jan 28th, 2023

By Katie Syroney

Cincinnati Opera

Cincinnati Opera announced the company has been awarded a $1.3 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (“Mellon Foundation”). The gift provides key financial support for a new artistic initiative by Cincinnati Opera to commission operas that celebrate Black stories. It will also fund the continuation of Opera Fusion: New Works (OF:NW), the groundbreaking workshop program from Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) that supports the development of new operas.

With seed funding provided by the Mellon Foundation gift, Cincinnati Opera will commission three new operas from composers and/or librettists of color that focus on racially and ethnically diverse characters and narratives, with primary emphasis on Black stories. The first, scheduled to premiere during the company’s 2025 Summer Festival, will be a large-scale, grand opera for full cast and orchestra by a Black composer/librettist team that features a positive and uplifting reflection of the Black American experience. Two additional operas are currently planned to premiere during the company’s 2026 and 2027 seasons, respectively, with full details to be shared at a later date.

The initiative builds on Cincinnati Opera’s commitment to present programming that reflects the diversity of its community and our nation. The company’s 2022 Summer Festival will include two world-premiere operas from Black creators that focus on Black characters: Castor and Patience, by composer Gregory Spears with a libretto by former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, and Fierce, by composer William Menefield and librettist Sheila Williams.

“We are deeply grateful to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for this investment in the future of our art form,” said Evans Mirageas, The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera. “They have been a valued supporter of Opera Fusion: New Works since its inception, and this gift is an important endorsement of our shared focus on advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in the arts. Our industry is experiencing an urgent need to expand the narratives presented on our stages. Through conversations with our artistic partners and community members, we’ve learned that there is a particular need for new operas that center on positive Black stories. We’re thrilled to be able to provide the creative space for these inspiring voices to be heard.”

Morris Robinson, renowned opera singer and Cincinnati Opera’s artistic advisor, elaborated, “Back in 2019, while I was singing with Cincinnati Opera in Porgy and Bess, my fellow cast members and I were invited into a conversation with the company’s leadership about our hopes for opera’s future. We asked, ‘What would it take to develop more grand operas about Black people, written by Black people, that are positive and uplifting?’ It felt like a huge artistic opportunity. I’m excited about this new initiative because of what it means for people of color who’ll get to see their joys and possibilities represented on the opera stage.”

Mirageas emphasized that Cincinnati Opera is in the process of identifying creators to develop its three new works. “We’ve had several exploratory conversations and are also initiating a nationwide call for writers and composers of color to submit ideas for consideration,” he said. Inquiries may be submitted to commissions@cincinnatiopera.org.

A portion of the Mellon Foundation gift will also support the continuation of Opera Fusion: New Works, the nationally recognized partnership between Cincinnati Opera and CCM that advances the development of new operas. Under the program, co-directed by Mirageas and CCM Professor Robin Guarino, composers and librettists come together with Cincinnati Opera and CCM administrators, musicians, and artistic and production personnel to workshop their operas in progress. Since 2011, the program has produced workshops for 19 operas, and many of these works have subsequently received their world premieres on professional stages across the U.S., including Cincinnati Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Minnesota Opera.

The current gift from the Mellon Foundation provides support for OF:NW through 2024, with the next workshop taking place in May 2022: Robeson/Moscow, a new opera about the life and work of artist and activist Paul Robeson from composer Scott Davenport Richards and librettist David Cote, the creators of Cincinnati Opera’s 2019 world-premiere opera Blind Injustice. Guarino will serve as dramaturg and director.

“Although CCM’s ties to Cincinnati Opera date back more than a century, ours is a partnership that is truly defined by the exploration of ‘what’s next,’” said Stanley E. Romanstein, the Thomas James Kelly Professor of Music and Dean at CCM.    

“Thanks to the generosity of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CCM and Cincinnati Opera continue to take a leading role in our respective industries through Opera Fusion: New Works. This initiative’s emphasis on the creation of new operas allows us to tell bold stories from diverse perspectives and explore themes that are vitally important to contemporary audiences, while also allowing CCM students, faculty, and staff to play an active role in the evolution of the art form. We are proud to continue this important work, and we could not ask for better partners than Cincinnati Opera and the Mellon Foundation.”