‘Finding Wright’ creators find joy in collaboration as world premiere dawns

Composer Laura Kaminsky and librettist Andrea Fellows Fineberg are enjoying one of the best collaborations of their careers thanks to “Finding Wright,” which will have its world premiere Feb. 25 and 27 at the Schuster Center courtesy of Dayton Opera.

Kaminsky, known for addressing critical social and political issues in her work, and Fineberg, writing for a Dayton Opera production for the third time, consider their partnership a rarity. Not many women have the opportunity to create an opera, adding to the excitement of their rapport before a recent rehearsal.

“I’ve worked with four other composers identifying as male and it wasn’t like this,” said Fineberg, director of community engagement for Santa Fe Opera. “Is it because we are female and come from a different sensibility about the role of women, which used to be community-centric and creating nurturing relationships? Maybe it’s just the nature of who we are (as individuals). But this has definitely been completely different.”

“Andrea is so creative and not afraid to be fanciful,” echoed Kaminsky, delighted the score contains an aria about fairy floss, also known as cotton candy. “I’m more grounded in a way, and sometimes I had to really push myself to understand a certain metaphor and let myself go with it. But the thing that was great was (this partnership) was very respectful. If I didn’t understand something I would call Andrea and we would talk about it.”

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Grateful to be brought together for this project by stage director and dramaturg Kathleen Clawson, who is in her first season as Dayton Opera artistic director, the duo also appreciates the contributions of conductor Susanne Sheston, who will lead the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Sheston’s work with Santa Fe Opera included choral preparations for six world premieres and two North American premieres. She also served as chorus master for the 2019 Grammy-winning recording of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” recorded live at Santa Fe Opera.

“Conducting is a male-dominated profession but Susanne has been conducting her whole career,” Kaminsky noted. “Susanne is so unassuming. There are no big gestures or histrionics. She listens to everything.”

Heralded by The Washington Post as “one of the top 35 female composers in classical music,” Kaminsky, an Oberlin College graduate, cites Stephen Sondheim, Igor Stravinsky, Chick Corea, and Stevie Wonder as her eclectic musical inspirations. Her first opera, “As One,” is the most produced contemporary opera in North America, with close to 50 productions to date in the U.S. as well as across Europe. She describes her “Finding Wright” score as challenging due to her passion for rhythm, which evolved during her time living in Ghana for over a year.

“I’m fascinated by rhythm, and I don’t like the rigidity of a lot of Western music that’s strong on the downbeat and everything is even and lockstep,” she said. “And for this show, Andrea’s words were an inspiration.”

Shifting back and forth from the early 1900s to the present day, “Finding Wright” traces two parallel narratives and musical languages: one of Katharine Wright (1874-1929), younger sister of Orville and Wilbur; and one of Charlotte “Charlie” Tyler, a 21st century aerospace engineer and academic inspired by Katharine who is grieving her thwarted career and the recent loss of her husband. Katharine’s narrative contains a turn of the century musical sensibility. Charlie’s modern path is more soulful, primarily embracing blues and jazz.

Thematically, Katharine’s storyline follows her from her carefree younger days to the aftermath of her mother’s death to finding a love that drives a wedge between her and Orville. Determining which moments to illuminate for the purpose of dramatic tension proved paramount.

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“Katharine Wright had an interesting life filled with puzzling moments, but how to make her life operatically compelling was the journey,” said Fineberg, who created original dialogue for Dayton Opera’s 2014 production of “The Magic Flute” and 2017 production of “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” “So, we took the quiet, shared, universal moments we all have experienced and amplified them. We made them bigger than life. Katharine was a resilient, exemplary human who showed up for her people. She was there. She also stayed curious, which is one of the great tenets of being human.”

“Katharine had a resilience that persisted,” Kaminsky echoed. “She also had a determination to do good.”

The duo acknowledges the opera is not a biography of Katharine Wright. Creative liberties were taken in order to broaden its scope. They hope audiences grasp the significance of connection and time, themes prominently driving both storylines.

“In life, we benefit from interconnectedness, the awareness that we all are on a journey,” Fineberg said. “And often times we don’t realize we’re on that journey together.”

“As human beings, from the very beginning, our journey is going to be filled with challenge and loss,” Kaminsky added. “But it’s important to stick together, to keep going. Life is hard but life is great.”

HOW TO GO

What: “Finding Wright”

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27

Where: Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton

Cost: $5-$100

Tickets or more info: 937-228-3630 or www.daytonperformingarts.org

Presentation: The opera will be sung in English with English surtitles

FYI: Patrons are required to wear masks

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