Nell’s “Turn and Burn” Awarded OPERA America Commissioning Grant

Opera America Announces Recipients of Commissioning Grants for Female Composers

OPERA America has awarded a Commissioning Grant for Female Composers to Houston Grand Opera for Turn and Burn, my upcoming opera with librettist Megan Cohen!

In Turn and Burn, small-town barrel racing champion Shayla Taylor and ambitious executive Jamie Hernandez aim for a big win at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When an accident threatens Shayla’s career-defining race, the women discover each other’s strength in adversity. Our  original story informed by interviews with rodeo athletes offers a feminist perspective on contemporary rodeo culture.

A 70-minute one act opera for five singers with an eight-piece amplified chamber-rock ensemble, Turn and Burn is scheduled for a World Premiere production with stage direction by Leslie Swackhamer in Houston next year.

OPERA America’s grant incentivizes opera companies in the United States to commission and produce works by female composers. In addition to Houston Grand Opera’s commission of my work, recipients this year include Beth Morrison Projects for Du Yun’s “In Our Daughter’s Eyes,” which is written by Michael Joseph McQuilken; Boston Lyric Opera for Ellen Reid and librettist Christopher Oscar Peña’s “The Desert Inn;” Guerilla Opera for “HER: alive / un / dead: a media opera” by Emily Koh; HERE for Heather Christian’s “A Practical Breviary: Terce;” Opera on Tap for Kamala Sankaram and librettist Kristin Marting’s “Joan of the City;” Opera Orlando for Stella C. Y. Sung and librettist Mark Campbell’s “The Secret River;” Opera Philadelphia for Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s “The Listeners;” and The American Opera Project for Rima Fan and librettist Karen Fisher’s “Precipice.”

I am honored to be included in such accomplished and visionary company!

Interviews for Skylark, Reflections on Music and Nature, and Houston Grand Opera

Sklyark Plus poster with portrait of Nell
As composers, musicians, organizations, and our audiences work to stay connected during this extended hiatus from live performances, many are turning to online video interviews as a way to continue engaging with the motivating ideas and individuals behind the music of our moment.

Last month, I was honored to be invited by three different interview series for public conversations about my work as a composer writing opera, choral music, and music inspired by nature, respectively.

In early June, librettist Megan Cohen and I were interviewed by Patrick Summers, Artistic Director of Houston Grand Opera, in a private Zoom event for friends of HGO that explored our upcoming opera, Turn and Burn, commissioned by the company for a World Premiere production next year.

My next interview was with Matthew Guard, Artistic Director of vocal ensemble Skylark. Our conversation centered on my choral cycle inspired by Victorian art, Transform the World with Beauty, which Skylark commissioned and toured last year. To watch my interview and lots of great content, please consider subscribing to Skylark+—a special platform to support the ensemble’s artists during this pandemic.

Most recently, I spoke with a composer colleague, Ryan Suleiman, for his weekly interview series Reflections on Music and Nature. We discussed my approach and motivations in composing music inspired by landscape, nature, and place; artists as activists of the imagination; and Landscape Music, the international composers’ network I direct and which Ryan is a member of. Our conversation is available for viewing anytime on YouTube (see below).

Rodeo Houston preview and workshops of “Turn and Burn” with HGO

Several upcoming performances have been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19; see list of all upcoming events for current information.

The December ’19 workshop cast & creative team of Turn and Burn at
Houston Grand Opera! L-R: Leslie Swackhamer, stage director; Stephanie Sanchez as Jamie; Geoff Loff, music director; Cory McGee as Virgil; Liz Gautsche as Maggie Ann; Nell; Geordie Alexander as Rick; Megan Cohen, librettist; and Sarah Tucker as Shayla.

This past December, librettist Megan Cohen and I headed back to Houston for the first music workshop of Turn and Burn, our chamber opera commissioned by Houston Grand Opera through HGOco’s “Song of Houston” initiative. Four days of work with our performers and directors culminated in a presentation of the complete 75-minute score, drafted for a reduced orchestration of piano, electric and acoustic guitar, and drum set.

Since then I’ve been revising and orchestrating in anticipation of our second music workshop May 18-22, which will include the full score for rock-classical octet! We’re thrilled with how the piece is taking shape and excited to be taking these final steps in its development towards the premiere production in February 2021.

In the meantime… on Wednesday, March 11 at 7:30pm, rodeo fans will preview the opera in a performance by Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers at Rodeo Houston’s “Stars Over Texas Stage”! This reprisal of HGO’s Rodeo Songs cycle will include the World Premiere of “Next Rodeo”—my country song with lyrics by Megan, sung from the perspective of a barrel racer on the road, adapted from the opera. This will be the first performance of my music by a honky-tonk band! Learn more about the event.

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, electric and acoustic guitar, and drum set. Revisions and orchestration will follow, leading to a full score workshop in 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.

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.