A talented soprano, music major Jessica Marlor ’16 could have pursued a professional singing career. But she found an even better fit for her musical skills: composing modern operas that focus on social issues. “I like opera when it takes on a new life,” says Marlor, who has interned at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. As a composition student, she has been inspired by music faculty members, including Assistant Professor Kate Soper. “Her commitment to ending the plight of the female composer has affected me to my very core,” Marlor says. Here, Marlor discusses the opera (working title: A Hundred Coals in the Fire) that she plans to stage at Smith next year and her ambitious vision for opera as a vehicle for social change.

My opera is about the Lattimer [Pennsylvania] Massacre, which was right around the turn of the 20th century. Polish coal miners protested for better working conditions and higher wages. The coal company called the sheriff, and the sheriff responded by shooting them all in the back. My opera takes place in the days after the massacre, with the community rebuilding and taking their case to court. It’s about community collaboration and working together and inspiring one another.

My family is Polish, and I’ve always been interested in how I fit into society as a Polish American. Obviously, Polish Americans really aren’t marginalized anymore, but I took a great interest in the marginalization of immigrants around the turn of the century. I’m also very interested in social issues and unionization and things like that. I listened to Woody Guthrie growing up, and Bob Dylan. I think the story is relevant today.

Although it’s an opera, it’s very different. It’s a folk opera. Folk music has a long history of being honest, raw and easily sung. I want my opera to emulate these same qualities. This is an opera by an ordinary person, for ordinary people. I worry that opera has removed itself from everyday life and everyday music; I want my opera to change that.

It’s also participatory, so the audience is supposed to engage in the piece. You are invited to sing on any note that you feel like in a chant-like section. I want the audience to feel like they are part of something, and this creates an immediate bond among the people around you. One of the lines that is repeated over and over is, “The only language common to all is the language of the gun,” which I got from a quote about this massacre from a Howard Zinn book. It’s really intense.

My dream for producing my opera would be to have it done outside, in the courtyard between Mendenhall and Sage, and then have a series of lectures about unionization and labor issues in America today. That’s like what I want my life to be. I want it to be a mix of scholarship and finding music where social issues thrive and come to the front of music. Opera started out as social commentary. We’ve moved away from that, and I think it’s important to bring it back. We’re socially minded, globally minded now. We really need to incorporate that into our art.

Spring ’15 SAQ