Newtown Odyssey brings opera to a creek in New York City
The Newtown Creek forms part of the border between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and is one of the most polluted industrial sites in the US, but traveling there by boat can be an unexpectedly beautiful experience. Set on a busy canal in a densely populated city, Newtown Odyssey, created by 2021 Grantees Marie Lorenz, Kurt Rohde, and Dana Spiotta, presents a non-traditional opera heard amid the sounds of surrounding traffic and industry. Performers sing aboard floating stages and pass by in boats, while the audience observes from shore.
Read Marie Lorenz, Kurt Rohde, and Dana Spiotta’s Artist Diary to learn more about the creation of their one-of-a-kind project, and catch performances of Newtown Odyssey on September 9 and 10, 2023 at 6PM EST. More information here. Register for a learnshop and dress rehearsal of the performance on September 8, 2023 at Amant in Brooklyn here.
Marie: We’ve transformed my studio in Bushwick to house every part of this project. It has been a rehearsal space, set building workshop, green screen room, and hang-out space. Once in a junk store I found these giant velvet curtains that must have belonged to a theater. I hung them across the room to hide the shelves where I store all my tools and material. Now I can instantly transform the studio from workshop to rehearsal space without cleaning up!
Kurt: The instrumentalists and I were able to experiment with a lot of robust electronics that would operate effectively on Newtown Creek, while still allowing us the ability to shape the music and sounds with nuance. For the first weeks of working together, it was as simple as setting up, plugging in, and seeing what sounds worked well with the ideas for the opera.
Marie: An important thing that I bring to the collaboration is the vision to re-imagine public space. My Tide and Current Taxi project is a rowboat taxi that uses the tide to transport people around the New York Harbor. It is a performance, a proposal, but really an invitation to see familiar places from an unusual angle, to hand over our sense of control to the flow of the tide. The opera will take place totally in public space, but it is a space not many New Yorkers have ever seen. It takes place right along the shoreline with some of the performers and audience on barges and in boats. The tide has been a major factor in our planning but also the complete wildness of this urban site.
Dana: I love the challenge of collaborating with Kurt and Marie. Novels are not collaborative, so I found it exciting to bounce ideas off two brilliant artists in other media. I was surprised by how organically it worked out. I loved two things in particular about this process: research/inspiration trips to the site with Marie, and hearing how Kurt’s music and the singers expanded and deepened what I had written.
Marie: Working with friends has been the most incredible part of this project, and then working with friends of friends as our team grows. The performers that Kurt brings in are amazing and we are grateful that they are willing to be an important part of the experimentation, exploration, and innovation we were seeking from like-minded creatives interested in such an off-the beaten-path (and onto the creek!) project.
Marie: The little park that will be our performance site is really calming to me. When I’m at my desk trying to pull things together, or even in the studio, sometimes I get worried about everything that needs to happen before our performance. But when I visit our site, I set all that aside and everything seems possible. I imagine how wonderful it will be to bring people here.
Kurt: No constructed indoor concert hall can capture the fullness of our Newtown Creek site. This is a spot where a lot of the joys and disappointments of our place in history seem to mix together. My field of new music has a lot of really high status, high stakes, important benchmarks of worthiness, but all of that falls away at the creek. Everytime I am there, it is striking how it exists, free of judgment and constructs…it is an unassuming sanctuary, and it is open to everyone who wants to be a part of it. I treasure & respect that!
Kurt: Working outside has been an incredible challenge. It became very clear early on that nothing we had done with our previous projects would match the scale, scope, and vision we had for Newtown Odyssey. The challenges to making sound and music and performing it outside has no analog to making the same type of work for an indoor concert venue or exhibition space. We had to spend a lot of time at the site studying the sounds that are native to the creek. Accepting that there was a beautiful chaos to the types and ways the sounds on the creek came forth played a huge part in our understanding behind how an opera that is made for the place where water flows, industry operates, wildlife flourishes, and quotidian messiness is baked into everything.
Kurt: Without CC, this project could not exist. It was the seed funding that allowed other funders, like the NEA, to consider what we were doing as worthwhile. One thing that CC has afforded us is the funding necessary to bring in artists to work with whose vision aligns with ours and who are willing to participate at a level of fullness.
Dana: I hope that it will in some way change the audience’s relationship to our urban environment, including its history. I will never look at an industrial waterway in the same way again. Just as when I worked with Marie in the past, her attention to the complicated beauty of urban waterways makes me feel more attuned to the workings of the city and its inhabitants. It all feels more connected.
Kurt: The last song in the opera was the first thing to be composed. I got the completed scene from Dana and was taken by the topically mythic quality of the character and their story. It was in setting this text that I realized the potential for the most expressive music & sound I could create for Newtown Odyssey was going to have to use the sounds of the site itself, or the sound of voices & instruments played there. The Creek Being Aria brings together these initial impulses for creating the music, while setting the tone and aesthetic that would inform the way the form and sound of the piece would come into being.
Audience members will travel along a path on the shore or Newtown Creek, guided by a Sonic Path that gradually morphs and transforms during the traveler’s transit. Featured here is fixed media by Kurt Rohde and a guided improvised performance by percussionist Joshua Perry.
Kurt: My primary goal for this project was to not rush it at all. I was working with these amazing people who are also beautiful artists & friends, and there was nothing about what I imagined we were hoping to do that would benefit from “forcing” this piece into existence inside a predetermined box. Spaces that I typically work in cannot be easily separated from the trappings of genre and institutional based new music. By its very nature of being outside (physically, institutionally, & aesthetically) of those spaces, I was afforded an opportunity to really listen to what the site allowed me to hear, and what Dana’s story & Marie’s objects offered as alternative ways to sing & tell a story that is mysterious, witty, and touching about such a complicated, gorgeous location.
Catch performances of Newtown Odyssey on September 9 and 10, 2023 at 6PM EST. More information here. Register for a learnshop and dress rehearsal of the performance on September 8, 2023 at Amant in Brooklyn here.
Watch the video trailer for Newtown Odyssey below.