The Catholic University of America

Sept. 4, 2009

Catholic University Composers Making Their Mark on D.C. Arts Scene

Graduate Composition Program Is 'Incubator' for New Musical Works at CUA


"Magnum Opus"
Photo by Nickie Brock

This weekend, as part of its eighth annual Page-to-Stage Festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented "Magnum Opus" and "Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows" - operas that originally were staged as student productions at Catholic University.

"Magnum Opus" was written by Michael Oberhauser, who earned a master's degree in music composition with an emphasis on stage music last May. Steven M. Allen, who wrote "Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows," expects to complete the same degree in October. Both operas debuted at CUA's Ward Recital Hall.

The two composers represent a growing number of CUA students who create original works as part of an innovative graduate program at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music and then stage them at theater venues in the Washington, D.C., area.

Associate Professor of Music Andrew Simpson, who developed the concept for and founded the program in 2005, describes it as "an incubator for new works at CUA." Students in the program have "a substantial impact on the arts scene in D.C.," Simpson adds.

"Life in Death"

"This Is NOT My Life"

"The Comic Roach: A Roadhouse Picture Show"

He notes that in July, the D.C. Fringe Festival presented Oberhauser's "Magnum Opus" and a couple of other productions that first took shape as student works at CUA.

The program provides training for students in writing for a variety of genres, including opera, musical theater, dance and incidental music for drama. As part of the program, students collaborate with CUA drama students training to be playwrights and directors to compose incidental music and sound design for theatrical productions, and work with choreographers and dancers. They are also involved in musical preparation for musical theater and operatic productions at the music school.

Through private lessons, group workshops, coursework and the performance of a culminating thesis project, students develop the special skills required for writing in theatrical or collaborative contexts, and apply them through practical work.

As part of the program, Simpson teaches a course called "Stage Music Practicum." A number of CUA composers have met and collaborated on projects in the class. Allen and Oberhauser, whose works were presented this weekend at the Kennedy Center, and John Maggi, whose musical "This is NOT My Life" was staged at the Fringe Festival, were all students in Simpson's class in fall 2008.

"The graduate program in composition, stage music emphasis, is a wonderful example of the extraordinary work that's being produced by the students and faculty at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music," says Murry Sidlin, dean of music. "It's another example of the kind of innovative teaching that's done at the school and the kind of education and training that our students receive. It also illustrates the way that the music school continues to impact and shape the arts scene in Washington, D.C."

Among the offerings this weekend of free readings and open rehearsals of plays and musicals being developed by more than 40 D.C.-area theater companies, the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival presented:

  • "Magnum Opus": Written by Michael Oberhauser and directed by Jay D. Brock, M.F.A. directing 2009, the one-act opera deals with Robert, a struggling playwright who undertakes a Faustian bargain with two sexy Greek Muses and trades his sanity for creative inspiration.
  • Vignettes from act 1 of "Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows": Written by Steven M. Allen and directed by Asya Heatley, the opera is based on the life and love of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. Act 1 records the first of the two years the couple would correspond before meeting. During the course of this time, Paul finds himself uncontrollably in love with a delusion while Alice learns to love the idea of a fairy tale romance.

Productions that started as CUA collaborations and were staged at the Fringe Festival earlier this summer include:

  • "Life in Death": Written by Gregg Martin, M.M. 2008, and directed by Brock, the one-act opera is based on Edgar Allen Poe's "The Oval Portrait" about an artist who becomes so obsessed with his painting of his bride that he does not realize she is wasting away as he paints her.
  • "Magnum Opus"

  • "This is NOT My Life": Those affiliated with CUA who contributed to the musical included John Maggi, M.M. 2009, who wrote the music and lyrics; Stephen Lewis, M.F.A. playwriting 2009, who wrote the book; Erin Dunn, B.M. musical theater 2009, who directed; and Gabriel Mangiante, staff accompanist and vocal coach for the music school's musical theater division who served as musical director.

In addition, The Snark Ensemble - whose members include Simpson; Maurice Saylor, CUA music librarian; and Phil Carluzzo, a doctoral student in composition - presented "The Comic Roach: A Roadhouse Picture Show" at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Aug. 4.

The production, which included silent film, cabaret and live music, also featured Ben Redwing, a doctoral student in orchestral instruments/clarinet, and Tracy Lynn Olivera, music school lecturer.