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In 1929, on a train heading west, two women artists trade compliments, complaints and nips from a flask as they carry on a highly unusual game of poker. Their “chips” are their tubes of paint — “I’ll see your Burnt Umber and raise you Cerulean Blue,” sings one — and their somewhat slurred camaraderie is a heady mix of tipsy hilarity and seething resentment.
This is Georgia O’Keeffe and her best friend Rebecca Strand, both women at midlife living somewhat in the shadow of their famed husbands, photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. They are bound from New York to Santa Fe on a three-day trip that will prove pivotal for O’Keeffe’s life and career.
It is also Scene 3 from “Today It Rains,” an 80-minute chamber opera for eight voices and 11 instrumentalists co-created by composer Laura Kaminsky, librettist Mark Campbell and video designer Kimberly Reed. The work, co-commissioned by Opera Parallèle and American Opera Projects, will receive its world premiere March 28 at San Francisco’s Z Space, with OP’s Nicole Paiement conducting and Brian Staufenbiel directing.
The opera is the third collaboration between Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed, a factor that led the librettist, who shared a Pulitzer Prize with composer Kevin Puts in 2012 for “Silent Night,” to overcome some reluctance to write what he calls a problematic “bio opera.”
“People have asked me before to write an opera about Georgia O’Keeffe, and it always gets back to the same question: Well, WHAT about Georgia O’Keeffe?” he exclaims, adding “You have to go and find a moment in their life where they’re at a juncture that justifies adding music to their story.”
Reading the voluminous correspondence between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and a little Wikipedia research led Campbell to just such a juncture — the train ride. “I said this must be THE moment in her life when she has to make this critical decision,” he recalls. “She was not happy in New York. There was too much noise; she didn’t like the art scene there. She loved Stieglitz deeply, but their marriage was tumultuous. And she just needed a new landscape.”
Kaminsky, in composing the score, was concerned about authenticity of time and place, incorporating elements of American folk music, jazz, blues and Native American traditions as she fashioned motifs for the characters, for the train itself and for the rain of the title. “It was like, what’s the zeitgeist, what’s the music of the time, what did it feel like and how did it become their characters?” she says.
Both librettist and composer emphasize that Reed’s video projections, which are cued to O’Keeffe’s aesthetic, but are NOT, they declare, “fake O’Keeffes,” are an essential and equal part of the project. They’re even calling them “visual arias,” because they take place with music, but wordlessly. “Especially because this is a piece about a journey, we need to show that passing of time and passing through landscape that changes,” Kaminsky says. “And it’s a visual artist who sees everything, so it was really important that there be a piece of storytelling that would be purely visual.”
Is the Georgia O’Keeffe who steps off the train at opera’s end a changed person?
“Yes, that’s what this is,” Campbell says. “It’s a journey of transformation, a journey of joy. It’s a journey that we hope inspires other people to make decisions that will change their life — especially women.”
“It’s that she is transformed in her ability to go forth and change herself,” Kaminsky adds. “She’s at the beginning.”
“Today It Rains” is a phrase Campbell lifted from one of O’Keeffe’s many letters to Stieglitz, because he says he found it so beautiful. It is not, he thinks, a sorrowful title at all.
“It was written not long after she got to Santa Fe, and the letter says, ‘I am finding myself, I am growing here, and this doesn’t mean I love you any less,’” he says, paraphrasing. “And then she changes the subject and says, ‘Today, it rains.’ And for me, the phrase means ‘we will get through this — the world is still going on.’”
Details: There will be four performances of “Today It Rains,” starring mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert as O’Keeffe and soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Strand, at the Z Space Gallery, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. March 28-30 and 2 p.m. March 31. For tickets, $65-$175, and a list of ancillary events, go to www.operaparallele.org.