Meet the Alumni: Rene Orth (Composition ’16)

Get to know your fellow alumni beyond their Notations in Overtones! Curtis continues our series of mini-profiles designed to dig deeper into the Curtis alumni experience.

Composer Rene Orth currently serves as Opera Philadelphia’s sixth composer in residence, a post that she will hold through the 2018–19 season. Her work has been performed by opera companies and orchestras around the world, including the Berkeley Symphony, the Louisville Orchestra, Festival d’Aix en Provence, Fort Worth Opera, and Washington National Opera. Find her full biography on her website.

Rene’s first opera, Empty the House, was premiered in the Curtis Opera Studio in 2016, and has been newly expanded as part of a double bill production, performed by the Curtis Opera Theatre in partnership with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opens in May 2019. Below, she discusses the process of writing and revising the opera as well as her work with the Curtis Opera Theatre artistic team.

Interview with Rene Orth

Have you made any major changes to the opera since its premiere in 2016?

We’ve certainly made changes. The women are more fleshed out in their stories—they’re more human. I’ve also added more sound design and electronics to mix in with the orchestra. I started out really conservatively with the electronics the first time around, knowing I’d want to explore more as I gained more experience and confidence in opera. The sound design helps with some extra ideas we’ve added in—for instance a theme of water runs through the piece now, which I think also helps tie it in with Riders to the Sea. I added some interludes as well in between scenes after talking with [stage director] Mary Birnbaum and [librettist] Mark Campbell, with intention to highlight some of the objects featured in the house. And, of course, the orchestration is bigger, moving from a chamber ensemble of nine to a chamber orchestra of 25. I’m curious to see how this piece will work in a much larger space versus the black box production we did in 2016.

What has your experience been like working with Mikael Eliasen and the Curtis Opera Theatre’s singers?

I’m not sure what other school, or director of vocal studies for that matter, would have given a young composer the opportunity to create and truly see an opera project all the way through to a full production. “Learn by doing” has been Curtis’s motto, and Mikael gave me an amazing opportunity to do just that with a new opera. Mikael is a most special mentor, and will relinquish control to give artists the freedom to truly create with their own voices. It has been a dream to work with him. The same goes for the Curtis singers. They are most eager, viciously talented, and super-collaborative. It’s really fun to work with them in this early stage of their careers, knowing they’ll rise to be some of the top artists in the field.

Are you familiar with Riders to the Sea? If so, how do you feel it pairs with Empty the House?

I wasn’t, until Mikael suggested it as the piece to fit the other half of the double bill. I think it’s a brilliant pairing. It’s Vaughan Williams’s opus 1, and Empty the House is my first opera ever to be produced. There are similar themes in both works concerning family and loss, and Mary and her team have really beautiful ideas about how to weave the two pieces together on stage. I’m super-excited to see it all come together.

Mikael has assembled a creative team almost entirely of women for this production. Do you have any feelings to share about the importance of supporting women composers (and conductors, directors, etc.) in an often-male dominated field?

I think Mikael has assembled the best team possible. I loved working with [conductor] Daniela Candillari and Mary Birnbaum in Double Exposure with Opera Philadelphia last May, and I’m thrilled we have the opportunity to collaborate and create together again.

What’s next for you? Do you have any exciting projects in the works to share?

I do have some works in progress, but for now, details are a secret!