Matt Donovan’s “Inheritance”
Matt Donovan, Creative Writing and Literature faculty member, was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from Creative Capital to produce an opera titled Inheritance, which is based on the life of Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester gun empire. This opera will be in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize in Music finalist Lei Liang, Grammy Award winning soprano Susan Narucki and internationally renowned artist Ligia Bouton. Donovan and Liang, who is the composer of Inheritance, met during their time at the American Academy in Rome and instantly bonded through art. “We actually first connected over haikus and started talking a lot about haikus, and then found a kind of just friendship and kinship with one another,” says Donovan with a laugh.
Liang was of the same opinion. “I just really admired Matt’s work and we had a lot of interesting conversations about art, about music, and about poetry,” Liang says. “So we both wanted to do something together, we just hadn’t figured out a way.”
An opportunity arose after Liang began composing a chamber opera titled Cuatro Corridos, which centered around human trafficking found on the San Diego/Tijuana border. Liang, already in collaboration with Narucki, contacted Donovan. “At one point he asked me if I would like to be involved with this project. And I said, ‘Great!’” Donovan says. “But I also said, ‘I know nothing about opera.’”
As a poet, Donovan had never delved into the deeply historical world of opera. “I do feel like I’m in uncharted waters in terms of my own creative work because I’ve never written in this genre before at all. And obviously there is a whole sea of history here with opera that I was finding intimidating but also necessary to try to engage with in some ways.”
Liang also found himself a bit intimidated by the weight of composing an opera. “Opera is a very important thing,” says Liang. “Important not only in Western music but also in music from different parts of the world. So I have to… in a way, almost respond to what has been done before… So in that sense it’s a great challenge that I love to face… as a composer. There’s so many giants ahead of us, you know?”
Among the pressuring history of opera, there are also complexities within the genre itself soon discovered by Inheritence’s creators. While Liang has written a chamber opera, which is a smaller scale opera, he has found himself challenged by the length of the music he is writing for Inheritance. “I’ve never written a piece that is going to be this long, you know, 60 or 70 minutes of music,” Liang says. “And I always feel… some of the most beautiful things that can happen… is between my collaborators, with Susan, with Matt, with Ligia—that’s always mattered to me the most, whether we have a good working relationship.”
Donovan also draws strength from the support of his fellow collaborators. “There’s so many logistical components and practical matters connected to the production that I was confronted with that I’d never before had to consider,” Donovan says. “… I’ve never sort of written collaboratively before and you have to be willing to leave your ego at the door and realize how little you know about the tradition, how informative the expertise of my peers is.”
The topic of the opera itself is a challenging one as well. Donovan intends to use the life of Sarah Winchester as a metaphor for America’s relationship with guns. “What I hope that comes out of it is real dialogue about guns… I’m not under any illusion that opera is an efficacious way to change gun laws in this country. But… what I’m hoping will happen is that this project will be one additional means that will continue to foster authentic dialogue.” Donovan voiced concerns as well about this project being too “head-on” when it comes to such a difficult topic. “I was worried about taking on something that I felt strongly about, that would be a subject that meant a lot to me and… center on a contemporary issue and that I would be oversimplifying things and it would amount to a kind of finger pointing rather than an exploration.” Liang also has high hopes for the execution of this project and faith in his and Donovan’s skills as creators. “I don’t want us to be very predictable… I want the audience to have a lot to think about by the end of this experience… To complicate the matter, make it more sophisticated.”
Inheritance is due to premier in 2018 at UC San Diego, home of Liang and Narucki. A Santa Fe venue is still being discussed.