Winter Term at SFCM is a time to explore. A few short weeks in January before the start of the spring semester this period offers students the chance to take on a project off the beaten path or focus on their creativity and development in an area they’ve always wanted to traverse. A host of projects highlight the dynamic spread of learning opportunities during Winter Term. This year, we’ll see faculty-proposed course offerings such as Vienna Horn Intensive, Baroque Dance and String Seminar, and Art and Technique of DJing.
And it’s not only faculty who propose classes during this semester; students themselves play an important role in creating the curriculum of Winter Term. Student-proposed projects available as classes this year include learning to dance the polonaise, the intensive study and rehearsal of Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal work, Pierrot Lunaire, and learning methods for vocal improvisation (scat).
One of the major offerings during Winter Term this year is David Garner’s opera-in-progress, Mary Pleasant at Land’s End, a mix of workshop training in opera production and course of study in SFCM’s thematic curriculum. “As it turns out, the Mary Pleasant at Land's End Winter Term Workshop is a perfect fit for the Conservatory's theme of social justice this year,” says Garner, who proposed the project. “Along with thematic performances of the New Music Ensemble and Conservatory Opera Theatre, and thematically linked academic courses, this is an opportunity for students to work closely with the composer, librettist and conductor and top professionals in the field of opera. They can witness first-hand the birth of a new seminal work — one of the first major operas to spring out of a Conservatory setting in more than a hundred years.”
As part of the project, students will partake in rehearsal sessions that include aspects of standard opera workshop production that see them collaborate with over two dozen vocalists, many of them SFCM alumni. This setting will allow students pursuing opera to get a sense of what it’s like to be directly involved in and observe the creation of a full-length, two-act stagework.
About Mary Pleasant at Land’s End
The story of Mary Pleasant is a fixture in the annals of San Francisco’s emergence as a hub of cultural, economic, and political activity. A well-off abolitionist of African-American heritage, Pleasant was instrumental in furthering the reach of the Underground Railroad and landed victories for human rights causes in California during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
“I first heard about Mary Pleasant in 1987,” says Garner. “I saw right then that her life would make a wonderful subject for an opera. The first two iterations of the libretto I wrote myself. They were very dark, and concentrated more on the Gothic side of Mary Pleasant's life: she hinted on several occasions that she was related to the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau.”
After Mary Pleasant’s long gestation, including its transformation into a one-act show for solo mezzo-soprano complete with singing, dancing, and spoken monologues (premiered in 2010 by Crystal Philippi), Garner received a commission in 2014 from Opera Parallèle to fully realize the work. “I approached Mark Hernandez, whom I have known and worked with for 30 years, to write the fourth version of the libretto, which he transformed into a huge historical drama, with the element of Voodoo diminished but still very present in the musical superstructure and rhythmic leitmotifs for the principal characters. In Mark's brilliant libretto, the opera chorus, as the City of San Francisco herself, becomes a main character.”
A full piano/vocal musical concert, conducted by San Francisco Opera chorus director Ian Robertson will culminate the workshop on Saturday, January 14 at 8:00 PM at Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. The cast includes SFCM alumni Crystal Philippi, Marnie Breckenridge, Michael Jankosky, Heather Mathews, Krista Wigle, Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, Ellen Presley, Yemonja Stanley, William O’Neill and Steve Kahn, as well as current SFCM students and regional professionals in the field.
For more information, visit www.gofundme.com/MaryPleasant.