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.

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.