What better way to herald Women’s History Month than by introducing a brand new opera to the world focusing on one of Dayton’s most illustrious but under-appreciated women?
Katharine Wright, sister of Wilbur and Orville Wright, will come alive in a fresh and innovative way, thanks to the collaboration of an all-female production team at Dayton Opera. The world premiere of “Finding Wright,” the first commissioned full-length opera in the history of the company, is being staged on Friday, Feb. 25 and Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Schuster Center. The opera will be sung in English with English surtitles.
Behind-the-scenes of the new piece is a group of talented women led by our opera’s new artistic director, Kathleen Clawson. She’s familiar to Dayton audiences as both a soloist with the Dayton Philharmonic and as stage director for 15 opera productions over the past 12 years. For “Finding Wright,” Clawson served as both dramaturg and stage director.
How it began
It all started in 2014 when Clawson invited librettist Andrea Fellows Fineberg on a tour of Dayton. Fineberg was in town at the time writing new dialogue for Dayton Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute.”
When the two visited Woodland Cemetery, they stopped at the graves of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Buried between the famous brothers was a grave with the name of Katharine Wright Haskell.
“We looked at each other and asked: ‘Who was Katharine Wright?,” Clawson recalls. “There was a sister? They had a sister?’”
Those initial questions took them on a journey that began with Google and ended with a completed opera. “We looked up Katharine Wright and after we’d read her story, I turned to Andrea and said that Katharine’s story was operatic, especially her efforts championing her brothers’ work and finding love later in life,” remembers Clawson. The two discovered it was Katharine who facilitated the success of her renowned siblings when Wilbur and Orville were so focused on the work itself. “They weren’t really able to articulate it or describe it so that ordinary people could understand,” notes Clawson,” so Katharine became their advocate. She put aside any aspirations she may have had to focus on promoting the work of her brothers.”
Credit: Knack Video + Photo
Credit: Knack Video + Photo
Clawson and Fineberg learned that Katharine lost her mother at the age of 15. Though she did attend Oberlin College, she basically became the woman of the Wright household, taking care of the family. In addition to losing her mother, she suffered other tragedies: the death of her father and Wilbur. The plot thickened when, at the age of 51, Katharine’s relationship to her old college friend, Harry Haskell, blossomed into love. The relationship did not sit well with Orville, who felt betrayed. He refused to attend his sister’s wedding and cut off all ties to the couple. “Two years after her wedding, Katharine contracted pneumonia,” says Clawson. “Orville finally came to see her, arriving at her deathbed just as she was dying…very operatic.”
Getting to work
“We didn’t want it to be a biopic,” says Clawson. “We wanted to connect modern times to Katharine’s story so we decided to introduce a modern character who could face difficulties much like Katharine did and explore what she learns from Katharine. So ‘Finding Wright’ traces two parallel stories: one of Katharine Wright and the other of Charlotte (Charlie) Tyler, a 21st century aerospace engineer and academic who is grieving her thwarted career and the recent loss of her husband.”
The opera shifts back and forth between Katharine Wright in the early 1900s and Charlie Tyler in the present day. At her husband’s funeral, Charlie discovers Katharine’s grave, begins to explore the past through Katharine and finds her own path forward.
Meet the production team
To develop the music for the opera, Clawson and Fineberg approached composer Laura Kaminsky to compose the score. Kaminsky was cited in The Washington Post as “one of the top 35 female composers in classical music.”
“Laura’s opera, ‘As One,’ is the most performed contemporary opera in the United States right now,” says Clawson. “She is highly respected and a wonderful composer.”
Fineberg, the librettist, has served with the Santa Fe Opera for over 30 years. She has also worked with the Academy for the Love of Learning Lifesongs, writing original musical narratives with individuals in hospice care since 2007.
Susan Sheston, who will conduct the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for “Finding Wright,” is currently the chorus master of the Santa Fe Opera and has collaborated with many of the world’s leading operatic and symphonic conductors.
As dramaturg Clawson helped to craft the drama of the work.
Taking the stage
Baritone Sean Anderson will portray Harry Haskell, Katharine’s love interest and eventual husband. He is classically trained for the Shakespearian stage and appears in opera, musical theater and classical drama.
Tenors Dominic Armstrong and Christian Sanders will play Orville and Wilbur Wright.
A fortuitous surprise
Last summer, out of the blue, Clawson received an email from a man named Harry Haskell, who turned out to be the grandson of Katharine Wright’s husband.
“Imagine my surprise when I had been living and breathing this opera with one of the key characters being Harry Haskell,” she says. “He had written a book, ‘Maiden Voyage,’ about Katharine Wright! He had heard about our opera and wanted to learn more about it.”
Haskell plans to come to Dayton to attend the opera.
“Despite being an exceptionally gifted member of an iconic American family Katharine faced many of the same tradeoffs that women do today in balancing the competing demands that society places on them,” Haskell notes. “In her case, the struggle was complicated by the agonizing, and ultimately irreconcilable, conflict between loyalty to Orville and love for Harry.
“To put it another way, she was torn between the Victorian values of her youth and the values of the modern world that her brothers helped to create.”
Says Clawson: “This is a compelling Dayton story. It is perfect even for those who have never been to an opera before.”
How To Go:
What: “Finding Wright,” a world premiere presented by Dayton Opera.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27
Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton
Tickets: $5 to $100. Available through the box office at (937) 228-3630 or online at www.daytonperformingarts.org
Senior, teacher and student discounts are available.
Masks are required for all patrons over the age of six during the entire visit.
Related programming: There will be an after performance talk from the stage of the Mead Theater on Friday, Feb. 25 only, directly after the performance, which is open to all ticket holders. The creative team and several of the singers will be there to speak about the creation of this opera.
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