It’s been an exciting and busy year for CCM Norman Dinerstein Professor of Composition Scholar Douglas Knehans, a recent winner of the Ohio Arts Council’s 2018 Individual Excellence Award.
His most recent album Unfinished Earth, released on April 6, has already won five international awards including best classical album at the spring 2018 Clouzine International Music Awards, best contemporary classical album at the Independent Music Awards and three silver medals at the Global Music Awards.
Now, Knehans is preparing for the world premiere of his operatic monodrama Backwards from Winter during the New York Opera Fest. Directed by CCM alumna Jennifer Williams (AD Opera Stage Directing, 2012), the work premieres this Friday, May 25, 2018, presented by the Center for Contemporary Opera at Symphony Space.
With a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, Backwards from Winter explores a single woman’s reflection on love and grief after she loses her partner in an automobile crash. It uses live voice, live electronic/computer music and video streams to trace the unnamed woman’s past year with her beloved.
“We tell a story of love and loss, though do so in a way that constantly asks questions rather than gives answers,” Knehans says. “We follow the inception and ultimate tragic demise of a relationship but told in a reverse chronology and linked to a reverse cycling of the seasons — Backwards from Winter.”
Knehans and Rockwell began collaborating on Backwards from Winter in 2010. He completed the composition in 2013, using only the resources of electric cello, electronically processed soprano voice and computerized sound. Knehans says the cellist will also sing, hum and intone words throughout the production, adding an extra layer of dramatic friction to the music.
“Douglas is a truly interdisciplinary artist,” says Williams. “Backwards from Winter, like much of his work, brings together modern technology and timeless lyricism. His score puts a variety of musical styles and compositional techniques in conversation with each other.”
“He is a composer who is genuinely interested in the ideas of the artists performing his work. Working with him is a very collaborative and adventurous experience.”
Williams makes her New York directorial debut with the premiere of Backwards from Winter. The production features a set designed by CCM alumnus Ryan Howell (MFA Stage Design, 2013) and video projections created by Yee Eun Nam.
“A stark, dramatic Noh-like approach to stage will be used,” says Knehans, comparing Backwards from Winter’s staging to the Noh traditional Japanese theatrical form. “This element will also permeate the symbiotic lighting, set design and video creation to evoke the external natural world that stands as a counterpoint to the rich internal questions asked by the protagonist and the music.”
The video projections represent the character’s emotional process as she confronts her grief. The woman always initiates the images seen in the projections, Williams adds. The set is composed of car debris and white, ashen boxes that represent the compartments of her memory.
“She opens one – the inside is a vibrant color, different from the rest of the world of the set – and a sapling tree grows out of it, or a gust of leaves blows out of it,” Williams says describing how the set interacts with the video projections. “The videos are an expressive extension of her action.”
Williams says she brings a feminist perspective and an interest in new technology to the productions she directs. When she first came to opera, she didn’t like how the women were nearly always victims, so she works to dig deeper into the music and underlying story elements to present women as empowered and in control of their own destinies.
Other directors have chosen to invent a husband character as a looming presence in Backwards from Winter, but Williams says the woman’s conflict isn’t with her deceased partner — it is with her own grief. Additionally, the libretto for Backwards from Winter doesn’t specify that the woman’s lost love was male.
“I wanted to avoid inventing a husband character to keep the story inclusive,” Williams says. “I want everyone in the audience to be able to see themselves and their own experience in the story. A more expressive and less traditional, cinematic approach to video design leaves space for that — it invites more perspectives into the story.”
Knehans is very proud and excited that Backwards from Winter will premiere at New York Opera Fest this Friday, May 25. There will also be a new production of the monodrama presented at the Dark Mofo Festival in Australia on June 20-23.
Douglas Knehans. Photo by Tina Gutierrez.
About Douglas Knehans
Douglas Knehans has received awards from the American Music Center, the NEA, the Australia Council Performing Arts Board, Yale University, the MacDowell Colony, Opera Australia, The Cannes Film Festival, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, The National Symphony Orchestra, The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Meet the Composer and a host of others.
His music has been praised by the Washington Post as “beautiful,” by the Miami Herald as “wildly inventive,” by the Australian as “brilliantly catchy and eerily bright” and by Fanfare Magazine as “…effective…incisive… and hauntingly beautiful.”
Knehans’ music is available on ERM Media, Crystal Records, Move Records, New World Records and ABLAZE Records. His full biography is available online at douglasknehans.com.
For more information on CCM’s Division of Composition, Musicology and Theory visit ccm.uc.edu/music/cmt.