The third annual Del Mar International Composer Symposium (DMICS) finished with a resounding Night of Opera on Saturday, August 13. An enthused audience of 80 enjoyed an evening of four new operas: two larger operas presented in excerpts of work in progress, and two that were complete mini-operas, each no more than fifteen minutes long.
The program began with Meilina Tsui’s “The Big Swim,” commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera to celebrate the Lunar New Year in 2024. It tells the story of the contest of 12 animals who compete in a race, decreed by the emperor, to decide their place in the Chinese zodiac. We got to hear the cleverly humorous (false) start of the race, where Snake tricks Dragon, Monkey, and Tiger.
Then followed scenes early and concluding from “Tear Down this Wall” by Polina Nazaykinskaya (a repeat participant from last year), a dramatic tale spanning the end of World War II and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, with Beria serving as villain. It was commissioned by the Mississippi Opera to celebrate their 75th anniversary season. Konstantin Soukhovetski, on the faculty at Juilliard, accompanied both pieces on the piano. He had given a fine third concert two nights earlier, including works by DMICS director Jordan Kuspa, Nazaykinskaya, Robert Honstein, and Richard Strauss (not in attendance) in his arrangement of “Four Last Songs.” And Soukhovetski wrote the libretto for “Tear Down this Wall.”
The second half of the program included “Graceland” by Omar Surillo, in which an older Elvis fan arrives at Graceland and gradually realizes she has died on the way. Finally, Kuspa’s “A Long Trip” was based on a play by Dan McGeehan (who was in the audience) in which a man tries to bring his Alzheimers-afflicted wife to remember their courtship and first kiss many years before, as a way to bring her back. Their younger selves are conjured up, and a powerful quartet of contending voices urges the need to grasp the moment or recall and revive it.
In a preconcert discussion involving four composers, a librettist and the dramaturg from Houston Opera, Kuspa and McGeehan spoke of the need to reduce the spoken word of the original play to make room for the music. Much could be “said” better in music, they found.
The marvelous singers were drawn from the FF Collective, led by co-founders Tasha Koontz and Sarah-Nicole Carter, and included Sarabeth Belon, Dongwhi Tony Baek, Michael Sokol, and Steven Pence. The mini-operas of the second half were accompanied by members of the Boston-based group, Hub New Music, who had been featured in the second concert, on August 9 at the Powerhouse, playing music of Honstein, Carlos Simon, Dai Wei, and Nina C. Young.
This symposium was twice the extent of last year’s, taking place from August 1-14 with over twenty composers and nearly as many performers participating in the program. Fifteen of the composers were students, many of whom are working toward advanced degrees in composition at leading music schools. The profusion and depth of talent at this DMICS was astounding. Nowhere else could one hear such vocal and instrumental artistry for such a modest outlay.