Workshop of “Turn and Burn” at Houston Grand Opera

barrel racer

Next month, librettist Megan Cohen and I head back to Houston for the first music workshop of Turn and Burn—our chamber opera commissioned by Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco for premiere in Spring 2021.

Four days of work with our performers and directors will culminate in a presentation on December 9th of the complete 75-minute score, drafted for a reduced orchestration of piano, guitar, and drums. Revisions and orchestration will follow, leading to a full score workshop in May 2020.

I can’t wait to share the fruits of this process with you all!

Artist Residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM

Casita studio at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM.
Adobe casita studio at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM.

I’m spending two months in Taos, NM as an Artist-in-Residence at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. I’m hard at work on the score of Turn and Burn, my upcoming chamber opera about rodeo for Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco.

As a three-time alumna of the Wurlitzer Foundation’s residency, I’ll also be giving an Artist Talk at The Harwood Museum of Art in conjunction with their special exhibit, The Legacy of Helene Wurlitzer: Works from the Harwood Collection. This event takes place on Friday, March 8, 2019 at 5:30pm. Details at harwoodmuseum.org.

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).

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.

“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.

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.

“Mabel’s Call” at University of New Mexico in 2018

The University of New Mexico Logo

I’m very honored to announce that the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque will be presenting a full-length workshop of my opera Mabel’s Call—with the full score for six soloists, chorus, and seven-piece chamber ensemble—as UNM Opera Theatre’s Fall 2018 semester production! I can’t wait to work with stage director Leslie Umphrey, music director Kristin Ditlow, and their talented students, as UNM Opera Theatre Composer-in-Residence. Performance dates TBA.

“Mabel’s Call” opera event on June 18 in Taos, NM

Ad for Mabel's Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music
On June 18, 2016, the Mayor of Taos, New Mexico declared the first annual “Mabel Dodge Luhan Day,” to occur on the third weekend of June. He noted that “Mabel Dodge Luhan was one of, if not the most prominent and globally known resident of our community from 1918 to 1962, serving as our unofficial ambassador, mentor and host to the arts, to the outside world and to many of the most talented, influential, and well known figures of her lifetime.”

In celebration of the second annual Mabel Dodge Luhan Day weekend, the Harwood Museum of Art and The Mabel Dodge Luhan House are presenting a behind-the-scenes look at Mabel’s Call: my new chamber opera that dramatizes Luhan’s self-reinvention in Taos.

I look forward to joining leading Luhan scholar Lois Rudnick in this public conversation and opera video screening, titled Mabel’s Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music. We will screen and discuss video clips excerpted from a concert workshop performance of the opera-in-progress, which was filmed live at the Harwood Museum in 2016. I’ll be shedding light on the process of interpreting Luhan’s life and historical context through music. Audience Q&A will follow.

The event will take place Sunday, June 18, 2017, 2:00pm in the Harwood Museum of Art’s Arthur Bell Auditorium in scenic Taos. Admission is free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For venue information, visit the Harwood Museum of Art.

ABOUT THE OPERA

Inspired by the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mabel’s Call is a lyrical opera in one act scored for six soloists, chorus, and chamber ensemble, with music and libretto by Nell Shaw Cohen. A universal tale told on an intimate scale, this work probes themes of identity, love, home, spirituality, and the search for a meaningful life. The opera’s story will resonate with audiences everywhere—even while it is deeply rooted in the culture, history, and physical landscape of Taos, New Mexico in the 1910s and ‘20s. The Harwood Museum of Art and American Opera Projects have presented workshops of Mabel’s Call in Taos and New York City, respectively. To hear clips from the opera and learn more about the project, visit mabelscall.com.

Residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM

View of Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.
Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.

Last year I spent ten weeks as Artist-in-Residence at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, which supports artists and the creative process by providing housing and studio space in the heart of Taos, New Mexico. I’m delighted that the foundation has invited me back for a second residency.

I look forward to returning and continuing work on Mabel’s Callmy opera inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s journey of self-reinvention in Taos during the 1910’s and ’20s. The Wurlitzer Foundation is located minutes away from Luhan’s historic home and all of the locales that were important to her life in Taos—and, consequently, my opera! It’s the perfect place to immerse myself in completing this opera-in-progress, my largest work to date, which I began researching about a year and a half ago.