The howl of gray wolves seems like a natural inspiration for composers, musicians, and storytellers. That is precisely what sparked Ben Morris’ imagination when Sohap Ensemble approached the composer to create a new puppet opera.
The decision by Colorado voters to return wolves to the state was another inspiration, according to Sabina Balsamo, artistic director of Sohap Ensemble.
“Ben Morris, our composer, is extremely inspired by nature. He and Laura Fuentes, the librettist, really were excited about that being our theme. And it works really well with the puppets, so we just ran with that,” Balsamo said.
“There's a lot of this sort of anthropomorphizing some of the instruments, or the instruments become the animals,” Morris said.
His approach was similar to Saint-Saëns, a French composer.
“You know, when you think about the Carnival of Animals — where you're both poetically and also literally [hearing] the sounds of the animals. We have this cool sort of thing where the strings do what we call extended techniques where they emulate wolf howling,” Morris said.
The result is “Colorado Sky,” a shadow puppet opera for families about a wolf cub who has just been reintroduced to Colorado and is struggling to fit in and make friends in his new home.
Fuentes found it exciting to write for characters represented by shadow puppets.
“It's such a strong visual that you are allowed to think in different ways than if you're doing a traditionally staged piece,” Fuentes said. “For example, I wouldn't normally write a stage direction where, say, a wolf grows in size to dominate the entire stage picture because it's not really something you can do in a traditionally staged production. But here, I think we had that opportunity to be a bit more figurative with the action, to do a lot of rapid scene changes, have those animal characters. and all sorts of things like that that normally would be quite difficult to explore in a traditionally staged production.”
Melanie Bindon designed the puppets, and she operates them alongside Denver-based puppeteer Katy Williams, who was also tapped to direct “Colorado Sky.”
Williams decided shadow puppets would be the perfect fit for this story.
“Because opera is already so rich in its storytelling, the shadow puppetry seemed like the best way to accentuate what was already happening without taking away anything, which was awesome,” Williams said. “I also love shadow puppetry as a way to tell stories with music because I think that through the lighting and through the way that you move, it creates this really cinematic feel.”
Shadow puppetry can have many different cultural sources, and different parts of the world use shadow puppetry differently. Williams said some of the most ancient shadow puppetry comes from Turkey and Indonesia.
“So Wayang Kulit and Karagöz and Hacivat are usually sort of the first styles of shadow puppetry that we see. And we definitely are using a lot of just traditional shadow puppet techniques with that,” Williams said.
The style of shadow puppetry used in this opera is front-facing shadow puppetry.
“It's somewhat modern in the sense that the lights are moving themselves. So it truly is a kind of innovative way to do shadow puppetry. It's a little more unique than something you might see in more of a traditional house,” Williams said.
Mezzo-soprano Claire McCahan, baritone Brandon Tyler Padgett, and soprano Sabina Balsamo sing the roles in “Colorado Sky.” Balsamo says the story of the young wolf club Sky trying to fit in and learning how to be himself in his new home is something anyone can relate to.
“It's a wonderful introduction to classical music, because the storytelling is so much front and center, it's visually exciting, and the music is very relatable and accessible to somebody who might never have heard opera before. But it also has complexities that, you know, seasoned music lovers will really grab onto,” Balsamo said.
Created in collaboration with Art Song Colorado, Boulder Opera, and the Broomfield Council on the Arts and Humanities, “Colorado Sky” plays Saturday, June 3, at the Broomfield Auditorium and Sunday, June 4, at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. Each performance also includes a puppet-making workshop.
Correction: Melanie Bindon's name was misspelled in a previous version.
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