Myah Garrison and her friends are adding their voices to those of other American teens who insist on being heard.
“When you are our age, you are just gaining your voice. But it’s hard to make yourself heard if you’re not sure you’re worth listening to,” said Garrison, 16, one seven students associated with the Telling Room in Portland who collaborated to write the libretto for the 30-minute one-act opera “Girl in Six Beats.” The piece premieres this weekend at Corthell Concert Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s campus in Gorham. Dan Sonenberg, composer-in-residence at USM, wrote the music for the opera, which will be performed by USM Opera Workshop students. After its debut at USM, the opera will be performed later this month at two schools that are home to some of the students who wrote it.
Opera Maine commissioned the opera in collaboration with the Telling Room.
The young writers, between the ages of 12 and 16, wrote the libretto during a 30-hour opera camp at the Telling Room. “Girl in Six Beats” tells the story of discovery for a teenage girl whose feeling of voicelessness pushes her toward suicide. While in limbo, she finds her voice, asserts herself and commits to life. “It’s about a girl who is kind of lost. She has lost all faith in herself, and she thinks the world would be better without her,” said Garrison, 16, a student at Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport. “But as she begins to understand herself better, she realizes that she should have the final say, and she takes control of her life.”
It’s a powerful and timely message. Schools and communities across greater Portland have grieved the suicides of several teens recently, and the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, emboldened teens to speak up. Finally, Garrison said, teens are being heard, “and being heard is a big topic at the moment,” she said.
The opera is one example of teenagers raising their collective voice above the din of adults who think they have all the answers, Garrison said.
Opera Maine commissioned the project because it wanted to engage young people in opera, said Caroline Koelker, executive director. “We wanted to have high school and middle school students involved in writing the story, and we wanted to give them the freedom to tell whatever story they wanted to tell,” she said. “To have someone as talented as Dan Sonenberg compose the music and be dedicated to the project in the way that he has been, working directly with the students to make sure it’s a meaningful educational experience, is really quite exciting.”
Sonenberg composed the opera “The Summer King,” about Negro League baseball star Josh Gibson. It received its debut a year ago at Pittsburgh Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre will produce it in May. Ellen Chickering, voice professor at USM, directs the production.
The students met for five days last summer at the Telling Room to do their writing. Sonenberg sat in on some of their writing sessions, and he composed the music over the fall and winter. The opera is written for a cast of five singers and a small chorus, with accompaniment on piano and percussion. Rachel Shukan, senior voice performance major, sings the lead role of “Girl.” A soprano, Shukan has performed in several USM opera productions and also with Opera Maine.
In addition to Garrison, the libretto was written by Telling Room students Ella Briman, 14, Cape Elizabeth High School; Makena Deveraux, 16, also of Cape Elizabeth; Zoe Sliwinski, 14, Scarborough High School; Emelia Bailey, 12, Gorham Middle School; Kaspar Wilder, 16, Portland High School; and Emily Greene, 12, St. Brigid School in Portland.
Sonenberg said he was impressed with what the students came up with and how well they worked together. “Collaborating is hard,” he said. “I wondered how a group of collaborators under a tight deadline would generate something, but they did. They came up with a very interesting story, and I was blown away by what they came up with in a week.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Corthell Concert Hall, University of Southern Maine, Gorham
TICKETS: $8 adults; $5 students, seniors, USM employees and alumni
WHERE to get help if you or anyone you know is battling depression or has had suicidal thoughts:
Maine Crisis Hotline: 888-568-1112
Other state resources in Maine:Dial 211
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255