Composer Stella Sung’s ‘The Book Collector’ will premiere at Dayton Opera

Production marks completion of Sung’s three-year DPAA residency

I think that the real reason I enjoy my work as a composer is that it has allowed me to meet so many people; young and old, amateur musicians and professional musicians, dancers and choreographers, writers, stage directors, theater people, technicians and other artists, performers of all kinds.”

— Composer Stella Sung

It’s the collaboration that has made composer Stella Sung’s profession so special.

In her past three years as Music Alive Composer-in-Residence for the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, the versatile composer has had the opportunity to create music ranging from dance pieces to an animated film score.

The culmination of her musical journey in the Miami Valley is a new opera, “The Book Collector,” created specifically for the Dayton Opera. The fully staged world premiere will be on Friday, May 20 and Sunday, May 22 at the Schuster Center. It’s the first time that the local opera company has commissioned an original opera, and the Signature event will feature the orchestra, ballet and opera as well as the Dayton Opera Chorus and the Dayton Philharmonic Chorus.

“It’s an old-style Mozart kind of model,” says Sung, who said the unique DPAA partnership offered the chance to create original music for the Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. The prestigious residency program was made possible by the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA.

Sung hasn’t limited her collaborations to the three local arts organizations. Over the course of her residency, she’s also reached out to a variety of groups ranging from Dayton elementary school students to seniors in the University of Central Florida’s Character Animation Program. For “The Book Collector,” she called on professional animators from the Ninjaneer Studios in Florida to create the opera’s first virtual, digital set using state-of-the-art technology.

“The opera world is moving more and more toward projected imagery for set design,” Sung explained. “When I knew that I would be doing an opera for the DPAA, there was question in my mind that I would bring this technology to Dayton and into the production. This will be a fully digital set, with some traditional set pieces and props.”

Creating a prequel

The seeds of the new opera were planted when DPO artistic director Neal Gittleman told Sung he’d like her to create an opera that could be paired with “Carmina Burana,” the Carl Orff cantata for chorus based on bawdy medieval texts uncovered in a German monastery.

Sung came up with the idea of creating an operatic murder mystery that could precede the cantata and could help explain how those medieval texts might have found their way to the monastery. Her dramatic plot is set in the 1920s in Bavaria and revolves around two men who are competing to own a rare medieval book. One is a wealthy baron, a book collector and the other is a young book dealer. The third character in the opera is the baron’s beautiful daughter, Anna.

Dayton Opera artistic director Thomas Bankston said Sung doesn’t fit the dark and brooding stereotype of a composer who doesn’t relate to the real world. He said she’s exactly the opposite. “She is very much of our real world and her energetic music is a reflection of the energetic way that she has approached every aspect of her residency with us,” he said. “She possesses an uncompromising strength of vision for her work and music, and most importantly a positive collaborative spirit.”

DPO conductor Neal Gittleman said he continues to be struck by how fast Sung’s composing mind works. “While she was working with the ballet’s artistic director Karen Russo Burke in the early stages of the ‘Fate of Place’ ballet, I saw Stella make significant (and positive) changes to the music on-the- fly in response to Karen’s suggestions and ideas,” he notes. “And during the workshop process of ‘The Book Collector’ in May 2015, each night Stella would generate a sheaf of new pages, every one of which was filled with significant improvements both large and small. It’s one thing just to be fast, but Stella can be amazingly creative while she’s working at lightning speed.”

More collaborations

For the new opera, Sung collaborated with librettist Ernest Hilbert who’d written the libretto for her previous opera, “The Red Silk Thread.” What’s so amazing, she said, is that Hilbert actually deals in rare books.

As a senior specialist at Bauman Rare Books in Philadelphia, Hilbert said 15 years of experience as an antiquarian book dealer allowed him to fashion a plausible scenario for this particular opera. “I understand the physical properties of books as well as the ways in which they are created and go on to change hands over the centuries,” he said. ” Also, I bid for books at auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies, so I am familiar with the showroom, its practices and idiosyncrasies. The auction house is really an 18th-century form of commerce, and much of the language and practices from that era persist down to the present day. I envisioned the auction that begins the opera as a duel between two strong-willed men. Bidding at auction can quickly become an irrational pursuit, as egos and expectations tangle and adrenaline flows.”

Portraying the auctioneer in “The Book Collector” is well-known Dayton auctioneer, Tim Lile. Soprano Angela Mortellaro, who first appeared with the Dayton Opera in the 2012 production of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” will play the lovely Anna. Baritone Andrew Garland will be Anna’s father, the evil Baron Otto von Schott. Tenor Andrew Owens will portray Franz Bierman, the respected local bookseller who interferes with the Baron’s quest to complete his prized book collection. The three leads alsow will appear in “Carmina Burana.”

Sung, in town for some of the opera rehearsals, said it’s been fascinating for her to see the staging and watch director Gary Briggle bring her music to life. New costumes for the opera were created by D. Bartlett Blair, who has worked with Dayton Opera for the past nine seasons.

The WOW factor

The Ninjaneers, who created the set for “The Book Collector,” are a full-service studio specializing in 3D animation and projection mapping. Artistic director Heather Knott says the process for coming up with digital sets is labor intensive and begins with a massive amount of research, in this case about Bamberg, Germany, in the early 1800s. What they discovered, she said, was a city with an interesting dichotomy: the old Noble class system was dying and a new middle class was opening up new opportunities for low-born citizens.

“We wanted to visually represent this changing status and deeply entrenched Catholic mindset when handling the differences between Baron Otto von Schott’s home study, Herr Franz Bierman’s bookstore and the Cathedral,” Knott explained. When her team had finished their research, they presented their ideas and came to Dayton to look at the Schuster Center. “When projecting sets, things like actual perspective, screen size/location, type of projection, and prime audience viewing angles had to be measured and calculated to figure out the best settings for our digital camera so the projected image’s perspective looks correct to most of the audience,” Knott explained.

Constructing the three main locations took six months. Everything from the walls to decorative pieces to books had to be modeled, textured, arranged in the scene, lit and rendered. Knott said any changes made on stage — whether props or choreography — required digital changes as well.

Final touches were then added — from candle flames to decay and destruction effects. “This is where we also built our effects for the Dayton Ballet’s ’ Hallucination Dance,” Knott said. “Once all of the post work is done, we rendered all of the sequences out into the final movies that our production program will read and feed out to the four projectors we’re seaming together to create one image.”

The result, said Knott, should give audiences the feeling of being immersed in both the physical locations and the emotional turmoil of the opera’s characters.

Summing up

For the past three years, Sung has juggled her Dayton visits with her responsibilities as director of the Center for Research and Education in Arts Technology and Entertainment at the University of Central Florida. She’s also a professor of music in UCF’s school of digital media. So no wonder there’s barely been time to munch a celery stick dipped in peanut butter.

“How do you describe why you love what you do?” she concludes. “I’ve gotten to meet and work with so many different kinds of people on so many different creative projects. Music puts you in that zone of the creative spirit. This has been a dream come true for a composer.”

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