On Oct. 5, the Drake Anderson Gallery in collaboration with the Drake Opera and Chamber Music programs will debut the new immersive opera “The Cadence of Life” composed by Nathan Felix and inspired by the Anderson Gallery’s current show “Freehand: Drawings and Prints by Judy Pfaff.”
In an immersive opera, the operatic performance occurs within the audience space. The cast will move around the space during the show, and the audience are encouraged to move freely during the performance to see the show from many points of view. In this case, the performance will move between the Anderson Gallery and the lobby of the Harmon Fine Arts Center.
“Renegade” composer Nathan Felix has written and staged work in Iowa before. According to Felix, he has always found the audiences in the state to be open and engaged with his work. When reaching out to Anderson Gallery Director Lilah Anderson, he said he felt it was clear that Drake was going to be a good fit for his next project.
“I really enjoyed my time in Iowa,” Felix said. “People are warm in the Midwest. It was really Lilah and her belief in this idea that it could be good for the community here. I was very attracted to coming here.”
Felix welcomed the challenge of the Anderson’s Gallery setup.
“With the Anderson Gallery, it’s one long narrow space, and that’s difficult to work in since I’m wanting the audience to cover every corner, which is easier in bigger museums. The challenge is ‘how do I get the audience to move the way I want to?’” Felix said.
One of the starting points for Felix’s composing process was engaging with the work of Judy Pfaff currently on display in the gallery.
“I like Pfaff’s work a lot. I think one thing I really respect is in her interviews she’s very transparent, direct, opinionated and intentional with her views,” Felix said.
At the beginning of his composing process, Felix melds the aspects of the exhibition, gallery space and size.
“What ties it together is the mood or atmosphere, finding a story — a through line through those things. [The opera] took from the ideals of Judy Pfaff, the musical components, the cadence, how do I weave and create a storyline. The cast also affected how I compose. Having nine cast members is a challenge. It’s a large cast,” Felix said.
The cast features Drake students involved in the Opera and Chamber Music programs.
“I’ve performed in opera before for the International Lyric Academy in Vicenza, Italy, as well as the Drake Opera Theatre,” Kaitlyn Wood, a sophomore cast in the opera, said. “Since this is a brand-new opera, there are no recordings or videos available online, so I had to create a totally new character. It was all up to my interpretation, which has been a lot of fun.”
Wood is part of the group of students selected to participate after a short audition process that took place last spring, in which interested students sent in recordings of their juries — end of semester solo performances.
“I wanted to be involved in something new,” Wood said. “It was a brand new show and cast. It was something I had never done since it was an immersive experience, and I thought it would be interesting.”
Since the students were cast at the beginning of the writing process, Felix was able to pull from them for additional inspiration when creating the characters. Felix said one of the most significant influences is the use of the name Cadence after Drake junior Cadence Lowery-Hart, who was cast in the lead role. Felix was drawn to its uniqueness and its use as a musical term.
The students spent most of their time rehearsing with Drake Opera Theatre Director Isaiah Feken. In the week leading up to the performance, Felix joined the cast for rehearsals. Wood said that she memorized the script faster than any work she had before, about two weeks before rehearsals began.
“It’s definitely made me a stronger singer and musician and prepared me to work in any space available,” Wood said. “The hardest part is the blocking of scenes. There’s less room to move around and act, but that’s also fun because it feels more like on-screen acting. The movements and the motions are much smaller and subtle. I feel like this puts more focus on the music itself. The acoustics will definitely be a change. I’m a little nervous to hear how the opera will sound in a space that is not necessarily designed to be performed in.”
When it comes to working in spaces not constructed for performances, Felix pays careful attention to how he can adapt and use them to his advantage.
“Every time I walk into a new space I’m fascinated with sound and the chance to do things for the first time,” Felix said.
According to Felix, with the consideration of the space also comes the consideration of how the audience will adapt in the space.
“Those people willing to take risks are going to have a heightened experience. Sometimes in a bigger space people stand there and are not as engaged. People here are forced to engage,” Felix said. “I want them to explore each space in a multitude of ways.”
According to the official summary, the opera follows the main character Cadence, a teenage girl in love with an orphaned boy. When attempting to tell her family about their relationship, her mother is informed they are being sued over allegedly stealing land from the boy’s father in the past. Cadence must now face her relationships with the boy and her family as the story unfolds.
“The Cadence of Life” will take place on Thursday, Oct. 5 at 5:00 p.m. in the Anderson Gallery. The event is free, but tickets must be reserved due to limited space. Tickets can be reserved on the Anderson Gallery website. This event is supported by the Friends of the Drake Arts, Drake Opera Theatre and the Anderson Gallery endowment.