Maya’s Ark

This week I began coachings for the world premiere of my 10-minute opera, Maya’s Ark, which Ardea Arts is presenting to the kids at Children’s Village on March 5th (and then in a Salon in their Soho studio on the 6th), featuring Michael Lofton and Guadalupe Peraza and directed by Grethe Holby.

Maya’s Ark was inspired by the story of Kea Tawana, who built an ark with salvaged materials in the parking lot of a church in downtown Newark in the mind 1980s; it was hailed as a major and inspirational piece of folk art, but she was eventually forced to tear it down because of zoning regulations. I’ve been wanting to write a musical about this for years—tried twice, only to run aground on the fact that the villain of the piece is the (yawn) zoning board—but, when I was looking for a subject for a ten-minute opera, one scene of the story jumped up waving its little hand and saying, “Me, me!” It’s the (totally imagined) moment when the pastor of the church asks Kea, “What’s all that scrap lumber doing in the parking lot?” If you’d like to know more about either the actual story of Kea’s ark, or about Maya’s Ark, please check out the impressive page that the Ardea Arts staff has put together about the piece (scroll down until you see the link for Maya’s Ark on the lower right, I can’t link directly to that page.

Why would anyone write a 10-minute opera? How could such a thing be performed? There’s a company that presents an evening of 10-minute operas every year, which I will not name here for reasons which will become clear shortly. I am friendly with the directors of the company, and they had told me that if I wrote a piece for them, they would include it—they couldn’t promise what year, but they’d do it eventually. So last spring I wrote Maya’s Ark and sent it off to them. They didn’t respond, but hey, they’re busy people.

Meanwhile, Grethe Holby, to whom I’d shown the libretto, offered to do an informal reading at the Ardea Arts space in Soho in July. We did that—sung by Lars Woodul and Judith Skinner—and it was most encouraging. Grethe got the idea that it might be something we could market and license to churches, and then handed me the most thorough, detailed and dead-on critique I’ve ever had of something I’ve written. (Truly: the marked-up score, with its annotations in different-colored pencils was a thing of beauty in its own right.) It took me several months to get the time to rework it, but finally that was done (it’s this version which we’re doing in March) and I also sent the revised score off to the UnNamed 10-Minute Opera Company.

A few days later, I got an email saying that they didn’t think the piece was appropriate for their audience. That rocked me back on my heels: the story takes place in a church; there’s no sex, violence, profanity or partisan politics; as the Ardea Arts website puts it, it’s “an investigation into the nature of faith with something to say to almost any audience.” The plot involves the rekindling of the pastor’s faith inspired by Maya’s quixotic ark-building project. I asked what on earth they could possibly be talking about. The reply to that was, “Maybe it’s just us—we don’t get it. And if you’d like to talk to us about it, we can talk—in April.”

Oooookay. Now I guess I know what it feels like to be a misunderstood artist. I’m still mystified as to what could possibly be troubling them about this, but it doesn’t matter now—I have three performances of the piece coming up, and a company that’s going to try to get more.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe not yet. While I’m waiting for the punch line, though, I’m writing another 10-minute opera on a faith-related subject: the Rapture. Last April, when dozens of people were striding through New York City street fairs carrying signs informing us that the Rapture was coming at 6 pm on May 21st (and the world would end five months later), I thought, “Oh, to be a fly on the wall when six o’clock comes and goes.” That’s the inspiration for this new piece, which I’m calling (surprise) Rapture.

I’d been thinking it could be a sister piece to Maya’s Ark, maybe something else that could be marketed to churches. But Grethe’s response after reading this libretto was that it was not at all suitable—whereas Maya’s Ark is uplifting and inspirational, Rapture is, well, a bit of a downer, and shows faith in a bad light. (The Rapture never actually happens, you see.) So perhaps the moral of the story is a post-modern one: that one never knows how one’s creations will be viewed. I suppose they’re a bit like children in that regard…