Donald George, Professor at The Crane School of Music (SUNY Potsdam) announced the winners of The Domenic J. Pellicciotti Composition Prize. This award was founded by Dr. Gary C. Jaquay to honor his life partner Dominic J. Pellicciotti, an ardent fan of opera. The award seeks to encourage and acknowledge the creation of new opera works that explore themes related to social justice, diversity, equity and/or inclusion. Previous winners of the prize include A Letter to East 11th Street by composer Martin Hennessey and librettist Mark Campbell. Tom Cipullo composed and wrote the libretto for his opera Mayo.
Thirty-three composers submitted applications for this award. The 2022 winners are Timothy Takach, composer and Caitlin Vincent, librettist. Computing Venus provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of astronomer Maria Mitchell, one of the earliest champions of women in STEM. The opera follows Mitchell’s efforts to cultivate the next generation of women astronomers, even as growing movements threatened to close the world of science to women forever. The winning team will work with Cori Ellison and it will be premiered by the Crane School of Music Opera Ensemble in the Fall of 2024, with workshops starting in the Fall of 2023.
Takach and Vincent shared their excitement about the upcoming production of their project with CS Music. “I’ve been looking forward to writing for the operatic stage for a number of years now, and it’s a hard part of the industry to break into,” says Takach. He continued, “I got my professional start writing vocal music back when I was a singer in Cantus (1996-2013). Our concert programs were always very driven by narrative, and so my own love of stories was bolstered and developed by crafting these concert programs. Some of my desire to compose comes from noticing what I’m not seeing on stage. In concert music it often ends up as a textual or thematic choice, but in opera I’m curious about who we’re not yet seeing on stage and shedding a light on current society by visiting with these characters for a couple hours.”
On the selection of a STEM focused story, Vincent shares, “Timothy first approached me with the idea of writing an opera inspired by the life of astronomer Maria Mitchell. So for me, the opera didn’t start with an intentional focus on STEM…it started with a focus on the person. Who was Maria Mitchell? What were her motivations? What were her obstacles? And why does her life suit an opera?
“Because Mitchell was such a prominent astronomer and also such a fierce advocate for women in higher education and science, of course, there was no question that STEM would ultimately play a role in the story we would tell. A lot of the opera takes place at Vassar College, where Mitchell was the first woman professor of astronomy and worked to train the next generation of women astronomers. She even took a group of Vassar students to observe a solar eclipse in Colorado, which is an important moment that we capture in our opera. Another key aspect of the story we wanted to tell was the rising movement against women working in STEM that was happening in the background of Mitchell’s work at Vassar.”
Vincent is a classically-trained soprano, whose focus on the empowerment of women in her libretto parallels her own life experience. She notes, “I graduated in the midst of the Great Recession, which saw dozens of opera companies close and a significant decrease in performance opportunities for emerging singers. I decided to start my own opera company in Baltimore, with the goal of creating performance opportunities for me and some of my friends from Peabody. Because the company had such a tiny budget, we were very limited in how we could stage operas.” There, she had her first experiences with first adapting existing libretti of Mozart operas, and then eventually writing her first libretto.
She adds, “Over the past several years, I’ve set my singing career aside and focused exclusively on my work as a librettist and lyricist. In addition to writing several operas, including large-scale works for Washington National Opera (Better Gods, 2016), the Schubert Club of Minnesota (Tienda, 2019), and the University of Connecticut (Bessie and Ma, 2019), I’ve written a number of art songs and monodramas with composers like Juliana Hall, Susan LaBarr, D. J. Sparr, and Lori Laitman. And with all of these works, whether big or small, I remain focused on character.
“I didn’t receive any formal training as a librettist, other than my involvement in WNO’s American Opera Initiative in 2013 and 2016, which involved close mentorship from librettist Mark Campbell. However, I’ve always been a writer and have a background in historical research. This training has been particularly useful for my works that are historically-based, such as Computing Venus.”
Gary Jaquay, founder of the Pellicciotti Competition, believes the quality of submissions has grown with each competition. He notes, “My interest is in making opera a viable form of expression for young people. A vehicle for personal experience and expression for high school and college age students who will be a future audience for this wonderful art form.”
Learn more about the Pellicciotti competition here.