Workshop Production of “Mabel’s Call” at University of New Mexico

Next month in New Mexico: My chamber opera Mabel’s Call will be given a staged workshop production, featuring the full 85-minute score with six principals, chorus, and chamber ensemble!

Mabel Dodge Luhan
Mabel Dodge Luhan

The accomplished faculty directors and student performers of the University of New Mexico Opera Theatre have spent the semester taking a deep dive into this opera and its historical inspiration: Mabel Dodge Luhan—the influential salon hostess, philanthropist, writer, and international icon of the avant-garde—and Taos, New Mexico in the 1910s and ’20s.

I’m incredibly honored by this collaboration and the invitation to work with the university as an artist in residence. After months of emails and video conferences, I arrive in Albuquerque next week to join rehearsals as the team prepares for their performances in UNM’s beautiful Keller Hall on November 2, 3, and 4.

Mabel’s Call has been developed over the past three years through workshops with American Opera Projects, Fort Worth Opera, and The Harwood Museum of Art, and two artist residencies at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico.

Synopsis and recordings at mabelscall.com.

UNM Center for the Arts in Keller Hall
Albuquerque, New Mexico
November 2 & 3 at 7:30 pm
November 4 at 2:00 pm

Tickets available at the door or at unmtickets.com ($12, $10, $8).

World Premiere Performances of “Retrace” on Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails Concert Series

Landscape Music Composers Network logo
My newest work, Retrace for flute, violin, and cello, commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act. It was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which retraces the expansion of colonial Spain through California and Arizona.

Cemetery wall, Mission Santa Barbara.
Cemetery wall, Mission Santa Barbara.

To prepare for this project, I took a road trip this summer following the Anza Trail from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping at sites where the 1775-76 Anza Expedition made camp.

Retrace will receive four co-World Premieres during Fall 2018 in venues around the country—see dates and locations below!

Each of these concerts are part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide concert series I’m directing that features 11 World Premieres inspired by National Trails and Wild & Scenic Rivers, all written by members of my group: the Landscape Music Composers Network. I’m thrilled by what we have in store—and I hope you might be able to hear some of this wonderful music. (I’ll be at the concerts in Vallejo and Portland, come say hi!)

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2018 @ 4:00PM in Vallejo, CA
Citywater at Visions of the Wild Festival
Event Website

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2018 @ 7:30PM in Houghton, MI
Michigan Technological University
Event Website

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2018 @ 2:00PM in Portland, OR
Cascadia Composers
Event Website

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2018 @ 7:30PM in Boston, MA
Juventas New Music Ensemble
Event Website

Warm Reception for “Mabel’s Call” on Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase

The most mysterious and probably most affecting of the three works was Mabel’s Call, an opera whose trio of excerpts were so subtle and arresting they exemplified a sort of waking-dream feeling [the] characters each seemed to be lost in…the composer most called to mind was Ives…” THE COLUMN

The cast of Mabel’s Call from the wings of Bass Performance Hall. Photo: Fort Worth Opera.

Excerpts from my chamber opera Mabel’s Call were beautifully performed last month on Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. An aria and two scenes were given a piano-vocal reading in a showcase of new operas.

The performance received some lovely press: in addition to a glowing review in THE COLUMN, I was interviewed for a preview article in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

It was a great honor to have my work featured on this platform, to share the stage with highly accomplished artists, and to receive feedback from a jury of opera professionals, as part of this project’s development!

Performers Heather Weirich, Megan Koch, Sam Parkinson, and Emily Urbanek with Nell at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX.

“Fallen Star” workshop at New Dramatists

The front door of "New Dramatists" with marquee advertising "Fallen Star"

In April, I was fortunate to co-direct a workshop of Fallen Star: a music-theater piece I’m writing with playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (a collaborator from the Composer-Librettist Studio, who I am also working with on play The Betterment Society). This project started with a single song and blossomed into 40 minutes of words and music (that want to be 90 minutes!) during a few weeks of intensive writing with Deen.

The piece was given further shape through the contributions of an artistic team of otherworldly genius—music director Charity Wicks, singers Blake Friedman, Nicole Mitchell, and Camille Harris, and dramaturg Cori Ellison—who spent five days developing the project with us as part of a Creativity Fund workshop at New Dramatists.

Our work culminated in an informal presentation for an audience of friends and colleagues, who generously provided us with feedback in a Critical Response Process.

This was one of those moments when I’m particularly aware of the beauty of being an artist in New York City—and the beauty of New Dramatists, a remarkable institution supporting artist-led development.

“Mabel’s Call” Selected for Fort Worth Opera’s 2018 Frontiers Showcase

"Mabel's Call" Selected by Fort Worth Opera for 2018 Frontiers Showcase

I’m extremely honored that my chamber opera Mabel’s Call has been selected by Fort Worth Opera for their renowned 2018 Frontiers showcase! A 20-minute excerpt will be presented with piano accompaniment alongside other five other new operas-in-development during the Fort Worth Opera Festival at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. Check out their press release for more information about each of the works selected for this year’s festival.

Mabel’s Call will be featured on Thursday, May 3, 2018. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased online.

Hailed as “one of the most significant music events of the year” by D Magazine, Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase has yielded numerous regional and world premieres since its inception. This program offers audiences a first look at the developmental processes for operas and gives emerging composers and librettists a platform to showcase their talents.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have Mabel’s Call continue its development as part of this amazing program. Learn more about this opera at mabelscall.com.

Rodeo opera research trip in Houston

Megan Cohen and I interviewed four-time World Champion barrel racer, Sherry Cervi, backstage at RODEOHOUSTON.

I had the great pleasure of spending last week doing immersive field research in Houston, Texas with my librettist collaborator (and sister) Megan Cohen. We’re in the early stages of developing a “feminist rodeo opera” commissioned by Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco for their wonderful Song of Houston chamber opera initiative.

Set at the present-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, this opera’s fictional story focuses on women in rodeo culture. Our characters include a professional barrel racer, a CEO of a Western wear company, a rodeo queen, and the ghost of a 19th century cowboy.

Thanks to Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco, and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, our research activities included interviews with seven amazing rodeo athletes (including World Champion barrel racers!); site visits to George Ranch, The Heritage Society, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Women’s Leadership Conference; and, of course, plenty of exploring and observing the rodeo itself. Check out my Twitter and Instagram feed (#RodeoOpera) for photos and summaries of our experiences throughout the week!

The premiere production of our opera is scheduled for Spring 2021. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Taking “Walks at Brush Creek” from Wyoming to Michigan

Composing at Brush Creek, September 2017.

My artist residency at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts for two weeks in September was simply a phenomenal privilege and gift.

It inspired me to compose my first piece for solo piano (way, way past due!). It was my first opportunity to spend countless hours and miles walking by myself through an expansive landscape of astonishing beauty. (I took, literally, a thousand photographs.) I challenged myself to compose on the trail, and at the piano, away from my beloved (and sometimes constraining) Finale. This solitude was complemented by stimulating conversations at group meals, campfires, and sunset-watching sessions with fascinating fellow artists and new friends. I also got to learn more about horses, rodeo, and ranching from an expert and to watch horse wranglers at work (research for my upcoming “feminist rodeo opera” for HGOco).

Falcon's Peak at Brush Creek Ranch, September 2017.

(See more photos from Brush Creek Ranch.)

These experiences will live on through my latest work, Walks at Brush Creek (2017) for solo piano. Here’s my program note for this piece:

Walks at Brush Creek was inspired by my daily walks through rural Western scenery as an Artist-in-Residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, located on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming abutting Medicine Bow National Forest. In the spirit of John Muir, I slowly “sauntered” for many miles on foot trails and dirt roads snaking through forests, valleys, and hills, and tried various approaches to combining this active mindfulness—a walking meditation, of sorts—with my creative process. The best days were when I generated melodies and motives on-the-move in the morning and fleshed them out at the piano in the afternoon. Walks at Brush Creek is the fruit of these experiments. With this score, I offer a musical illustration of my emotional responses to the landscape of Brush Creek Ranch—from the ever-shifting cloud shadows playing over the grasses and sagebrush to the sweeping lines of wooden fences that frame them.

I’m delighted to say that World Premiere of Walks at Brush Creek will be given at Michigan Technological University by faculty pianist Jon Ensminger on upcoming concert Music of the Landscape: Compositions Inspired by Our National Parks and Other Special Places. This event was coordinated by composer Libby Meyer in affiliation with my group, the Landscape Music Composers Network.

Sunday, December 10, 2017, 3:00pm
Michigan Technological University, McArdle Theatre
Walker 207, 1400 Townsend Drive, Houghton, MI 49931
Tickets: $5
Tickets and venue information

UPDATE: The full recording of the premiere performance Walks at Brush Creek is now online!

Quintet of the Americas Performs “Watercolors” at Parrish Art Museum 11/11

Quintet of the Americas

Saturday, November 11, 2017, 5:00pm
Parrish Art Museum
279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY 11976
Tickets start at $200 / $150 Members
Tickets and venue information

My work for wind quintet, Watercolors (2011), returns to the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons on November 11. This performance by the internationally acclaimed Quintet of the Americas will kick off the museum’s anniversary benefit party—five years after Watercolors was performed at their grand opening in November 2012!

Watercolors for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon was inspired by the watercolor paintings of Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967)—including one in the Parrish’s permanent collection, which will be on display in the galleries in conjunction with this concert. (Learn more about the connection between Burchfield’s art and my music here.)

Long recognized as leading interpreters of folk and contemporary wind quintet music of North and South America, Quintet of the Americas has spent over three decades commissioning over 70 works, performing over three hundred concerts throughout the United States, and in Canada, the Caribbean, South America and Eastern Europe, and recording eight CDs. It will be an amazing honor to have my music performed by this group!

Inspired by the natural setting and artistic life of Long Island’s East End, the Parrish Art Museum illuminates the creative process and how art and artists transform our experiences and understanding of the world and how we live in it. The Museum fosters connections among individuals, art, and artists through care and interpretation of the collection, presentation of exhibitions, publications, educational initiatives, programs, and artists-in-residence. The Parrish is a center for cultural engagement, an inspiration and destination for the region, the nation, and the world.

How wonderful to think that this will be the fourth time my music has been performed at the Parrish Art Museum. (See blog posts from the first time in 2012, second in 2013, and third in 2016.)

“The Betterment Society” at New York Theatre Workshop 10/30

THE BETTERMENT SOCIETY
Written by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Directed by Jessi Hill
Music composed by Nell Shaw Cohen
Performed by Jade Wu, Lynda Gravatt, Zoe Winters, and Matt Consul

Monday, October 30, 2017, 3:00pm
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St, New York, NY 10003
Free admission
Venue information

Join me for this public reading of brilliant new play The Betterment Society by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. I composed a song for voice and guitar that is threaded throughout the structure of the play.

Of this play and workshop reading, Deen writes:

“Three women on a godforsaken mountain.” This abstracted piece is curious about how place affects values, and how this in turn affects the divide between rural and urban value systems in America. It ask questions about the ways in which “community” can liberate us and/or imprison us. (And it’s also about three really fucking strong women.)

There’s something I’m trying to understand about the audience’s response so if you can come, your presence will be TANGIBLY helpful to me. There will be a brief conversation afterwards. I hope you can join us.

I first collaborated with Deen in the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio last winter. Deen then invited me to work on The Betterment Society, which was developed through workshops at New Dramatists and a weeklong PAGE 73 Yale Summer Residency this past August.

Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco “Song of Houston” Initiative Commissions Nell Shaw Cohen to Write Chamber Opera for Premiere in 2021


The Barrel Racer” by Eric Ward is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes, dreams do come true.

These past few years, I’ve focused increasingly on vocal music and opera—and I’ve been fortunate to have access to workshops, residencies, and fellowships that have moved me towards becoming a better artist and building a career as an opera creator. I completed my first dramatic work, monodrama The Coming of Spring, in 2014, and finished my first full chamber opera, Mabel’s Call, this past summer.

A big question, of course, has remained: How could I make that leap from writing “on spec” and workshopping operas-in-development to securing a premiere production by a professional company? Or, for that matter, having an opera commissioned?

Then, one day, HGOco—the community collaboration and education arm of Houston Grand Opera—loved the proposal I wrote with my collaborator to create a “feminist rodeo opera” (more on that below!) for their award-winning Song of Houston initiative, which has been commissioning new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston since 2007. Their open call for proposals opened a big door for me.

HGOco has awarded me a commission to compose a 60-80 minute one act opera, which will receive a full production in March 2021 with five soloists and an eight-piece chamber ensemble.

Dream. Come. True.

Megan Cohen

As if that weren’t wonderful enough, I get to write this opera with the brilliant Megan Cohen—one of the most-produced playwrights under 35 and an emerging opera librettist, recently commissioned by Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. She also happens to be my sister.

(As far as I know, Megan and I might be the first ever professional composer-librettist team of sisters!)

HGOco commissions works that reflect the Houston experience. Our original story, which will be informed by interviews with contemporary Texans, offers a feminist perspective on rodeo culture: “Small-town barrel racing champion Shayla Taylor and her sponsor, powerful businesswoman Jamie Mendoza, aim for a big win at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When a bronc rider with a tragic past threatens Shayla’s career-defining race, the women discover each other’s strength in adversity with the help of a spirited rodeo queen.”

Over the next few years, Megan and I will be making frequent trips to Houston for dramaturgical research and workshops as we develop the libretto and score.

I am BEYOND thrilled and honored for the opportunity to create work for HGOco. I can’t wait to bring this opera to life and share it with an audience!

For more information about HGOco’s commissions, which also include an exciting project from composer Nkeiru Okoye and librettist Anita Gonzalez, check out the press release on BroadwayWorld.com.