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Contemporary opera premieres in the Upper Peninsula

Composer Eugene Birman (left) and librettist Scot Diel on the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula. The two artists created a contemporary opera that had its U.S. premiere in Marquette, Michigan.

Last summer, we met Eugene Birman and Scott Diel on an island in the middle of Lake Superior. They were working on their newest opera called State of the Union.

With almost everything Birman and Diel have attempted to do, they've tried to ask themselves, "Why does it have to be this way? Can it be different?"

Eugene Birman says in most cases, other people have responded, "Well, yeah, I guess it can be.”

State of the Union is different. There are no fancy costumes, no pit orchestra; just 12 singers, a drummer and the occasional use of a megaphone. 

The Helsinki Chamber Choir rehearses 'State of the Union' under the guidance of director Nils Schweckendiek. In addition to singing, the group invariably whistles, shouts, and whispers throughout the piece.

Last night, the U.S. premiere was held in Marquette, at the Forest Roberts Theatre on the campus of Northern Michigan University.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir is the group performing the State of the Union on its U.S. tour. Director Nils Schweckendiek says in addition to singing, the choir is asked to whisper, speak, shout, breathe, and whistle throughout the contemporary piece. 

State of the Union is an opera that portrays four characters— the environment, the wealthy elite, the middle class and the disenfranchised lower class.

“It’s a discussion between characters about critical issues that the world is facing today," says Scott Diel, the librettist. He says what's most important is how these characters interact with each other. 

"How do we treat each other?" he asks. "Do we respect each other and do we value one another?”

Eugene Birman says the classic operas we know today were politically and socially relevant for their time. But he says the issues people were facing hundreds of years ago are considerably different than what we face today.

He argues that most people who attend those operas now, do so simply for the music, not to be challenged with a social or political viewpoint.  

“The historical displacement and the fact that once we put that work in a canon, it’s very tempting, and actually it’s very natural to lose touch with everything but the musical aspect of that work," he says.  

Birman does believe opera can still be relevant, but it needs to be about more than just music. He says it’s easier to get away from the traditions and formalities of opera in a place like Marquette.

The show made its U.S. premiere in Marquette thanks in part to the help of Melissa Matuscak Alan. She’s the director of the art museum at Northern Michigan University. 

She went to graduate school in Chicago, but never was inspired to buy a ticket to one of the opera houses there. She says opera didn’t feel accessible. Her perception was, "it’s a bourgeois entertainment that people get dressed up and they go and have fancy dinners and make a night of it.”

But Matuscak Alan says viewing opera as a way to have political discussions makes a lot more sense. Especially if the discussion is about man’s relationship with nature. 

“People in the Upper Peninsula understand that," she says. "We all have a really interesting relationship with nature. It’s what keeps a lot of us here.”

State of the Union is touring northern Michigan and will finish with a show in New York. Eugene Birman says audiences are always looking for something fresh and new. And he thinks it’s a special sensation to hear something for the first time.

“My hope is to always give them something that they actually have an emotional response to and care about," he says. 

State of the Union will be performed at the Interlochen Center for the Arts Saturday night before heading back to the Upper Peninsula for shows in Houghton and Sault Ste. Marie.

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