Spotlight Sunday Feature - Elliot Yokum and Sarah Florence Barker
Hello HOTOpera Fans! We can't believe that our 10th annual New in November Festival is only 15 days away! Have you purchased your tickets yet? We hope you will join us on Sunday, November 17 at 7pm at the Cathedral House at Christ Church Cathedral for this exciting evening of new opera that has become a Hartford tradition.
Today we're pleased to introduce our 5th opera: Starsong and its creators: composer, Elliot Yokum and librettist, Sarah Florence Barker. We hope you enjoy learning all about Starsong, Elliot, Sarah, and what Opera for the 22nd Century means to them.
Elliot Yokum (b. 1996) is an Armenian-American composer and sound designer with a passion for auditory storytelling. Elliot’s compositions have been performed and recorded by several ensembles, including the Compos-It Opera Festival Company, the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, the Carpe Diem String Quartet, and several Carnegie Mellon University chamber ensembles. Most recently, their text piece maybe the real music was the friends we made along the way was translated and featured by the German radio station WDR 3.
Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Elliot has always been curious about the intersection between sound and visual media. Through music, they seek to create meaningful connections, tell meaningful stories, and create dialogue between composer, performer, and listener. Inspired by artists such as Bertolt Brecht, Charlotte Moorman, and Yoko Ono, as well as writings by theatre artist David Roesner, their more recent endeavors explore the application of both traditional and modern theatrical principles in order to facilitate communication with sound. Elliot's work explores their own life and experiences as well as the realm of the mystical, with themes of coming-of-age, fantasy, and escapism. Elliot earned their BFA in Music Composition from Carnegie Mellon University in 2018, where they studied under the tutelage of Nancy Galbraith and Leonardo Balada. They are currently based in Santa Clarita, CA in order to pursue their MFA in Sound Design at the CalArts School of Theatre.
To learn more about Elliot, please visit their website: www.elliotyokum.com
Here is what Elliot wants you to know about their opera Starsong:
Starsong was written to be the fairytale Sarah and I wished we had when we were kids. When we decided to write an opera together, we started by talking about the stories we hadn't seen be told yet, and ended up with two tenants for ours: the love in the story must be gay, and the parental figure must accept that they were wrong. It is a story that is near and dear to our hearts, and we are both so excited to get to share it with Hartford!
Here is what they had to say about Opera for the 22nd Century:
Opera for the 22nd Century is about connecting people and connecting with people. It's about building meaningful relationships through story and song. It's about the relationship between performer and audience, storyteller and listener, and how that relationship can evolve into a method of building stories collaboratively. It's about bringing music to as many people as humanly possible and letting them bring their own music too and listening to what everyone brings to the table and weaving stories from there. Ultimately, it's about using opera to find and create community.
Sarah Florence Barker is a writer, poet, and classically trained soprano. Having recently completed her BFA in Vocal Performance at Carnegie Mellon University, with a minor in Creative Writing, Barker is now working on her MM in Voice at Mannes School of Music and searching for the next big idea. A native of Carroll County, Maryland, Barker has been enamored with music and storytelling since early childhood. She began formal voice study at age 13 and quickly became enamored with classical styles of music. She began writing far earlier, using the art of poetry and short story to depict the beauty and mystique she saw in the world around her. But then, of course, she discovered fantasy and took a sidetrack to work on writing the same high fantasy series for nine years running... watch for Feilan hitting bookshelves in 2029, if we’re lucky! She first began to combine the art forms during her undergrad, creating a song cycle titled ‘DAWN’ out of old poetry from high school for her senior recital. Starsong is her first real libretto.
Here is what Sarah wants you to know about their opera Starsong:
What do I want my fans to know about Starsong? I really think it speaks for itself! The early nucleus of the idea struck me out of nowhere and I fell in love with it and was lucky enough to convince Elliot to collaborate with me and give it life. If I remember correctly, I proposed the idea by sending them a Facebook message asking if they wanted to write a gay star opera with me, and then I cried when they said yes because I was so excited to work with them. I’m not sure I ever told them about that part, haha. We had just a couple basic rules—it’s gotta be gay, and it’s gotta be happy. Starsong is my love letter to all the things people seem to think opera isn’t allowed to be. It just makes me really, really happy, and I’m so excited to share it with the world. I hope it makes you happy too. I like to think we did a pretty good job on it!
Here is what Sarah had to say about Opera for the 22nd Century:
Opera for the 22nd century is opera for everyone. It’s opera that understands us, and opera that’s meant to be understood. You get all these preconceived notions about what opera is, what it can be, what it’s supposed to mean—and all of us have these ideas! Even those of us who perform these works of art, who supposedly give them the final spark that brings them to life!—and those ideas grow and grow until they define the art form for people who have never even experienced it. People play opera outside convenience stores to scare off loiterers (the grocery store down the street from me is always blasting Puccini when I walk by). Our stereotype of this art is a bunch of snobby old people with binoculars playing dress-up and bemoaning the fact that we don’t live in 1790 anymore. When I finally got my dad to come see a show when I was performing in the chorus, the first thing he said afterwards was “wow, I didn’t know opera could be funny,” and honestly? That’s a shame! Opera’s not dead, and I refuse to believe that it’s dying, but we’re at a juncture where we can keep clinging to these ancient preconceptions of dying sopranos and park-and-bark and boring pretty music… or we can tell stories bold enough to prove them wrong. New stories, for a new age, that invoke the soul of the old but the spirit of the future. I’m not in the camp of people who want a total reset on everything, death to the classic rep, burn it all down... I love singing Handel too much to ever commit to that... but I think we need a new breath of life. There are a lot of stories that classic opera’s hiding from. It’s part of why I’m drawn to telling stories as much as I am performing them—I want to tell the stories I wish I’d been told years ago. Stories that I can see myself in (and that I can perform in!! I can’t help but feel that my career as a coloratura soprano would be so much easier if the standard ratio for opera roles wasn’t something like 5 men for every one woman). That’s what opera for the 22nd century is for me, it’s opera that tells stories Mozart and co. just… wouldn’t have ever thought about. Stories about women, and queer people (apart from the obvious themes in Starsong, I like to think our Star is femme nonbinary, because gendering celestial bodies is silly!), and stories that are positive, and stories about love that’s worth it, and stories where nobody’s evil—they just don’t quite understand. Sometimes that’s what we need: stories where everyone means well, and things go right for once. Stories that remind us that it’s going to be okay. Stories that inspire us to look forward to what the 22nd century holds, instead of look back wondering why things went so wrong. Stories that inspire us to build that promising future for ourselves.
And to boil the sentiment behind that whole tirade down to one run-on sentence: if nobody else wants to give me an actual heartfelt emotionally complex coloratura bit to sing, I’m gonna darn well take it into my own hands and make one myself (ok, lies, I’ll beg Elliot to help first) and the 17 zillion 2-dimensional ingénues in the standard rep can fight me personally.
Thank you for tuning in again to our Opera for the 22nd Century blog! We hope you've enjoyed all five Spotlight Sunday blogs, each featuring one of our NIN operas and their composer/librettist teams! We can't wait for the weekend of November 17 and hope to see you at our Meet the Composers and Librettists event on Saturday, November 16 and at our 10th annual New in November festival performance on November 17! Continue to follow us on social media and visit our website for updates over the next 2 weeks.
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