If boundary-pushing art is not what you expect from an opera company, you haven’t experienced Tulsa Opera lately. Casting Lucia Lucas in the principal role as the first transgender baritone to perform a leading role in the U.S. (“Don Giovanni,” 2019) is just the latest example of how the company has rocketed into the 21st century. Under the direction of Tobias Picker since 2016, Tulsa Opera is newly energized about showing how powerful, relevant and moving contemporary opera can be.
Beyond his role as artistic director, Picker is also one of the foremost opera composers working today. His “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the Roald Dahl 1970s children’s novel of the same name, just won the 2020 Grammy for best opera recording.
“Most composers wouldn’t be interested in the producing side of opera. I am,” Picker says.
The first of Picker’s six operas to come to Tulsa is, notably, the first one he wrote. It also will be the first time in the company’s 73-year history that a composer will conduct his own work.
“I wanted to do ‘Emmeline’ before I did anything else here,” he says. “I want the audience to understand that operas being written today can affect them at a deeper level … because they’re about our time and our country.”
“Emmeline” will make its Oklahoma premiere May 1 and 3 at Tulsa Opera. The opera “Emmeline” is based on the novel of the same name by Judith Rossner, which in turn is based on the true story of a 19th-century Maine teenager raped by her boss at a textile mill. She gives up her son — only to unwittingly marry him 20 years later, enduring condemnation from her neighbors for the rest of her life once the secret is revealed.
“‘Emmeline’ wrote itself,” Picker explains. “I threw my complete being into it because I was so moved by the subject and completely convinced that everyone else who saw this opera would be moved by it. I wanted to give life to Emmeline through music that would move people.”
He discovered the story by accident, when he stumbled on a documentary called “Sins of Our Mothers” in the PBS American Experience series. (Its director, David Hoffman, will be in attendance for a screening of the film at Circle Cinema on April 14.)
The Tulsa Opera production features some of the brightest young singers in the country as well as new scenic and costume design. The true story of Emmeline (surname) Mosher happened during the mid-19th century. This new production to premiere at Tulsa Opera updates the time period to the 1930s and ’50s.
“What interested me was that this is the myth of Oedipus set in modern America — a true story told through Jocasta’s point of view. Emmeline is our American Jocasta,” Picker says. “But unlike Jocasta, she did not commit suicide. She chose life instead.”
The opera is an homage to the strength of the American woman, Picker says. “I learned about that from my mother, a very strong woman who was a shoe designer and an artist who worked full time while raising a family long before it was accepted. Now, a hundred years since the suffrage movement began, and in the context of the #metoo movement, it takes on new meaning.”