5 Questions to Rene Orth (composer) about TakTakShoo

TakTakShoo, by composer Rene Orth and librettist Kanika Ambrose, challenges the conventions of traditional opera by combining dance and technology with music. The first Opera Philadelphia Digital Commission of Season 2, TakTakShoo was created as an expression of “resurrection and rebirth and joy,” and as a means of reaching out to audiences and inviting them to confront their anxieties about “coming back to life as we know it.” Starring mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi and directed by Jeffrey Page, TakTakShoo premieres on the Opera Philadelphia Channel on November 19th.

You describe TakTakShoo as “an exploration of my favorite things,” which appear to include opera, electronics, technology, collaborations, blurring the lines between genres, and shattering listeners’ expectations. How did you combine these wide-ranging influences into a cohesive musical composition, and how did your outstanding collaborators factor into the development of the work?

Opera is all about the storytelling and journey for me. TakTakShoo’s original inspiration included two poems from St. Augustine that I loved, MiMU gloves, and a desire to have some fun and throw in some pop elements into the music production. I sent all those rather random ideas to Kanika Ambrose, and in a short while, she wrote this brilliant libretto that basically captured everything I could’ve asked for – and more!

The piece reflects the state that many of us are in now: slowly emerging from the pandemic, cautious and perhaps afraid to rejoin community, yet still hopeful. Musically, I chose to start with traditional operatic vocal writing and move towards more heavy electronic processing and a pop-y sound.  Kristen was the perfect singer to work with for this project – equally masterful and comfortable in operatic vocal technique and in singing K-pop-like top lines. She was amazingly enthusiastic throughout the process, even willing to record vocal lines on her phone in her mom’s closet, so that I could experiment with her voice in the music production process.

When I sent Jeffrey Page clips of my work in process, he was very inspired to create choreography with dancers centered around the singer – which is exactly what I was hoping for.  He dug deep into Kanika’s libretto and created a beautiful story through movement and the film screen.

It really came full circle for me, as this is the first line of one of the poems that originally inspired me:

I praise the dance, for it frees people
Form the heaviness of matter
And binds the isolated to community.”
-St. Augustine, “In Praise of Dancing”

TakTakShoo librettist Kanika Ambrose (photo by Jessica Rose) and director Jeffrey Page (photo courtesy of the artist)

TakTakShoo librettist Kanika Ambrose (photo by Jessica Rose) and director Jeffrey Page (photo courtesy of the artist)

In TakTakShoo, you embraced several innovative processes and technologies, such as the use of a MiMU glove, which converts gestures into sound. What effects do these notable advances in technology have on the roles of creators, performers, and audience members?

I think the greatest advantage of giving the performer direct control of electronic effects, as we did in TakTakShoo, is presenting a whole new palette of colors and a world of possibilities to create. Every voice in itself is unique, but add vocal processing effects, looping, delay, reverb, etc., and we can create entirely new instruments, sounds, and entire pieces, all based on an individual’s voice. The singer can then naturally apply said effects or electronic processes on their own, which is a million times more efficient and in sync then if someone had to perform the electronics alongside them.

Additionally, it is much more interesting to watch (and certainly more intuitive for the performer to use) gestures and the glove instead of someone twisting a few knobs or pushing some faders up and down on a piece of hardware that they are probably not very familiar with. And with limited rehearsal time, it is important to find the best process that limits mistakes.

Jeffrey was a perfect match for this project, especially because of his extensive background in choreography and dance. He helped me select more meaningful gestures, and he found a way to incorporate the glove as part of the story. Though Kanika may not have had any direct contribution in the programming of movements, I know the MiMU gloves were inspiring for her writing of the libretto. When incorporating technology into my work, it is really important to me to not make it about the technology, but rather allow the devices or processes help to serve the story. This is why it is imperative to work as a team with your collaborators so that you can really use the new technologies to its full advantage.

Kristen Choi in TakTakShoo--Photo courtesy Opera Philadelphia

Kristen Choi in TakTakShoo–Photo courtesy Opera Philadelphia

You and librettist Kanika Ambrose were both navigating being first-time mothers while creating TakTakShoo. What did you find to be the most challenging aspects of creating a new work while caring for very young children, and do you have any words of encouragement for other parents/artists who are doing the same?

I think the most difficult part was the need to suddenly change my writing process. Before, I had all the time in the world to work and was getting plenty of sleep. Then, enter the bundle of joy that disrupts all routine and sleep that you’ve ever known! There is no transition time, and it just takes a lot of grace, outside support, time, and some discipline to figure out a new routine.  For our family, this means I’m on toddler duty during 9-5 work hours, and my time to write is generally after the little one’s bedtime or on weekends. I’ve learned to work out pieces in my head during the day or while rocking a baby to sleep, and with such little time at a desk, I’m more efficient than ever now. And thanks to work-from-home mandates, we’ve been able to travel to our parents and in-laws for longer periods of time for some extra help. This piece couldn’t have been completed without their generosity and love.

As for advice for others: hang in there. The difficult parts will pass. And to the mothers especially: you’re doing great. Your feelings are valid. Ask for help when you need it. You literally created a human in your womb and/or you’re literally raising a small human into a big one. That’s no small feat! So, when you feel up to it again, the world can absolutely benefit from what you have to say. There isn’t enough representation from some of the greatest creators in the world: mothers.

You have said, “Music is fun and there’s a part of life that’s super joyful,” and director Jeffrey Page has noted, “We could use a reminder that we have within us an ability to be wild, spine-tingling, arousing, and electrifyingly zestful.” As we emerge from the pandemic and its associated challenges, do you expect to see more works that embrace joy and exuberance?

I certainly hope so! Of course, everyone has to find their own inspiration and healing coming out of the pandemic. Music is a universal expression of humanity though, and joy, exuberance, and fun makes the human experience complete. I personally would love to hear more pieces celebrating life, community, and all that comes with it.

What projects and collaborations are you looking forward to next?

I’m currently working on a song cycle for soprano Emily Albrink and pianist Kathy Kelly. For text, Jeanne Minahan has written a beautiful set of poems, reflecting on the lives of the women in her own family line. It is being written with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben in mind, with Jeanne’s poems, however, telling about real women, the choices they make, and the love that is woven into their lives.

One of my bigger projects in the pipeline is a chamber opera inspired by Nellie Bly’s 10 Days in a Madhouse, co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Tapestry Opera. This is a perfect story to play with audience expectations, and Hannah Moscovitch has written an absolutely awe-inspiring libretto. I’m having so much fun now working out the music, characters and storytelling – playing with electronic sound worlds and live processing vocal effects, all while also incorporating traditional operatic vocal techniques and orchestration. I’m excited for the upcoming workshops – to hear the music come off the page, to experiment with some electronics, but most especially, to be in the same room creating with so many brilliant minded artists again.


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