To explain our collaborative duo, you must first join us in a dusty theatre classroom in 2002, where you can find hand-painted planets, styrofoam lamps, alphabet letters, and multipurpose scraps of fabric. You're in a theatre in Paducah, KY, where our careers in storytelling began.
We were always playmates, but our true performance partnership began in middle school, when we played two rotten toddlers named Weldon and Eldon in a production of Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. The roles required of us a series of offstage tantrums, first with screams, then screams and cowbells, and finally, for our crowning moment, we hoisted two massive aluminum trash cans high above our heads, and on cue, let them drop 5 feet to the floor with an ear-splitting boom. Thus began our journey of storytelling through sound.
Storytelling has always been in my DNA. I grew up listening to my grandmother recount stories from her childhood, sharing them with such depth of detail and excitement that my brother and I would plead “MORE! MORE!” when her stories ended. At a yard sale, my mother purchased an old video recorder for my six-year-old brother and we began exploring the world of film, playing and creating for days until we completed our adventure.
When it came to storytelling, perhaps most influential for me was watching and listening to my mother tell stories through her singing. We both auditioned for our first musical together at our community theatre, Market House Theatre, that was putting on a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. I was four years old and had just accompanied my mom to her audition, but having listened to my mom practicing, I had memorized all of the words to the "Coat of Many Colors" song. After her audition, my sweet mother meekly asked the director if I could sing for him, knowing that I was too young to be cast. Well, we were both cast in our first musical that day and I realize now what a privilege it was growing up in the master class of musicality and storytelling that was my home. I loved (and still do love) to witness my mom's singing as the vessel for a character: every inflection and every dynamic served the story.
I continued my theatre-kid path at the Market House Theatre taking every Footlights class and auditioning for every show I could from the age of four until high school. I was #broadwaybound and making plans to audition at the most prestigious musical theatre schools in the country. Enter my first voice teacher, Kay Bates. Kay was a retired mezzo-soprano professor from Murray State University just down the road, and she would come up to Paducah Tilghman High School to teach voice lessons during the school day. For every musical theatre song I sang in her lessons, Kay would assign me a classical piece. I was very resistant at first, but then I began opening my heart and ears to this new (to me) soundscape. I started understanding how much more there was to my instrument through classical vocal study. New colors, dynamics, and timbres began appearing and I was so excited to use these new tools in my vocal toolbox to express the beautiful stories in my art songs and arias. To say I was smitten is an understatement. I had begun a full-fledged affair that is raging to this day (shhh, don't tell my musical theatre repertoire).
Throughout my college years, I continued to foster my love of classical vocal music and art song in particular. Like any good voice student, I prepared and performed my junior, senior, and graduate recitals and found myself programming art song at every opportunity. My wonderful friend, Maria, even joined me for a performance of Jake Heggie's song cycle "Facing forward/Looking back" on my senior recital. We had been acting together for years but this was our first classical duo experience and we both recognized an innate sisterhood in our music-making. After attending SongFest for two summers, I was flooded with new repertoire and got my feet wet with creative programming. Starting around 2016, I began keeping a running list of recital ideas in the "Notes" app on my phone. One day, I quickly jotted down "songs for children - Maria?"
My grandmother was an opera singer, and music was always around, since both sides of the family are musicians and artists. I discovered classical voice in high school, also studying with Kay Bates, but when it came to university choices, I resisted opera with all my might, thinking that it wasn't really "my style" (judging from the picture to the right, there is an obvious end to the story here.) I was head over heels in love with teaching theatre to young people, having learned as much as I could muster from my brilliant and wonderful mentor, April Cochran, at the Market House. I set my sights on theatre education and French, wanting to give kids the rich theatre life that I had growing up. While at school, I discovered dramaturgy, and found delight in analysing plays from behind the curtain. I then studied in France, working as an assistant at a theatre and trying to remember how to say sentences in the past tense. While there, I saw a Racine play, and sat through three hours of rhymed consonants and vowels swirling in my ears. I had no idea what they were saying, but something about the rhythm of the writing alone had me in tears. How do you explain that?
Studying French literature had me poring over the works of literary writers in the wacky OuLiPo group out of Paris, essay-architects like Georges Perec, and edgy multi-genre-artist worldview-hackers like Henri Michaux. I was riveted by the questions those artists were asking. They were fascinated with the idea of breaking convention, and wanted to see what was revealed if they abandoned it.
But even with all this exploration of literature and theatre, something was missing. It was Emily that finally convinced me to join the dark side and sing opera (my resistance was futile.) About a year into my studies, I discovered French art song, and it was all over for me. Who knew this stuff was out there? Who knew that I could combine music with all my nerdy language fantasies? I had found my golden ticket. I dove in heart first. Singing became my chosen medium for storytelling, and I was home.
Years after deciding to become a singer, I performed “Trois Fables de Jean de la Fontaine” by André Caplet in recital, and something about it felt like putting on an old pair of jeans. The French fables — The Wolf and The Lamb, The Crow and the Fox, and The Cicada and the Ant — were ones I cherished and over whose pronunciation I had stumbled on my long trek to fluency (plus, I had a history playing lambs.) What’s more, the music was bursting with the vivacious energy of childhood; such silliness, such reverence, such wonder. There was something there. A longstanding piece of advice from April floated to the forefront of my mind: “If you can keep a group of five-year-olds quietly engaged for more than five minutes, you’re doing something right.” Aha! This was an opportunity to combine my passions for theatre education and opera. I knew exactly who to call.
OPERA IN OVERALLS
EMILY: Opera in Overalls was the product of a recital that Maria and I conceptualized over the span of a few months, and ultimately put together in one singular afternoon. As Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” This recital, “Once Upon a Time” was a great thing, though neither of us really knew that in the early creative process. We simply wanted to put together a non-traditional recital format using classical art songs that centered around children’s stories. As our neurons swirled and co-mingled that fateful afternoon in Maria’s living room, we started to sense that this could be something really special. The addition of overalls was actually a very late idea — Maria had to borrow my mom’s because we didn’t have time to buy her a pair before the show. And yet, they ended up being the linchpin for the success of the recital. The audience gathered in a dark theatre holding a program of songs, many of which had foreign language titles, and just when parents, already trying to calm squirmy young children, began to think, “maybe we shouldn’t have come,” I enter the stage from behind the curtain in overalls with a bright red balloon. Giggles ensued and the formality of the recital was broken.
As classical singers, both of us have gone on to devise several recitals as a duo in various genres of music. Our interest has now turned to the recital format itself: what are its parameters? Are we allowed to change them? At what point does it become something else? If you take away the conventions and reexamine the recital with content at the forefront, what would be left?
Opera in Overalls reimagines the possibilities of the recital format in three ways.
We have grounded our process in the principles of devised theatre. This allows us to mold the material to serve the story both thematically and stylistically.
Our repertoire is selected and programmed to serve the dramatic purpose.
We chose to allow freedom for instantaneous reactions throughout the performance, much like children do when playing in real life.