Cincinnati Opera Stages Vibrant and Heartfelt New Opera, “Fierce”

There’s a common lament amongst animation heads: animation is a medium, not a genre. In some ways, opera is obscured by a similar issue: it’s seen/marketed as a genre of the elite arts goers, performers, and creators; performed in glittering, hallowed, and not always accessible halls. But like animation, opera is a medium; it is one of many expressive ways to tell a vibrant, dramatic, and heartfelt story – something composer William Menefield and librettist Sheila Williams do magnificently in their new opera, Fierce.

Fierce follows four girls – Rumer, Nyomi, Morgan, and Vesta – in a workshop for college admission essay writing. The girls are sent into varying stages of existential crises in response to the prompt from their ever-bubbly and oh-so-positive instructor, Ms. Linda hyphen Adler: “Tell me who you are!” Rumer is in mourning: her beloved has taken her life. Nyomi is fearful: will her mask of confidence be enough to keep her safe? Morgan is paralyzed: her parents want her to go to college, but she doesn’t; and Vesta yearns for a kind, loving place to escape the violent conflicts of her parents. The girls move from evading their problems  (of being “too” much; of having to edit/delete aspects of themselves) to facing them: they embrace their “too-ness,” their communal and individual fierceness.

Megan Graves as Rumer, Alicia Russell Tagert as Morgan, Victoria Ellington as Nyomi, and Lauren McAllister as Vesta in Cincinnati Opera’s 2022 production of Fierce--Photo by Philip Groshong

Megan Graves as Rumer, Alicia Russell Tagert as Morgan, Victoria Ellington as Nyomi, and Lauren McAllister as Vesta in Cincinnati Opera’s 2022 production of Fierce–Photo by Philip Groshong

Originally set to debut in 2020, Fierce coincides with Cincinnati Opera’s belated bicentennial celebration, and the fact that its creators and a good portion of the cast are from/based in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky makes it even more poignant. Fierce also joins a recent increase in operas by Black artists featuring predominantly Black casts. Several Fierce characters were debuted by Black singers, including Victoria Ellington (Nyomi), Alicia Russell Tagert (Morgan), and Indra Thomas (Troll 3/Jackie/Margaret).

The year of Fierce is now, and Williams’ libretto revels in contemporary, colloquial English. There’s something transcendent about hearing a character say “true that,” or “the open mic… it’s gonna be lit!;” Adler referred to as “the hyphenated one,” seeing all four girls start steppin’. This is a story of our time, of our city, and more specifically, of our youth.

Librettist Sheila Williams--Photo by Tasha Pinelo

Librettist Sheila Williams–Photo by Tasha Pinelo

It’s no small thing that Williams calls Rumer, Nyomi, Morgan, and Vesta “Muses”: they were created from her year-long conversations with teenage artists in the Greater Cincinnati area. The supporting cast of Indra Thomas, Wendy Hill (Adler/Troll 4/Mary, Vesta’s mother), Antonio Cruz (Troll 2/Jim, Morgan’s father), and M. Andrew Jones (Troll 1/John, Vesta’s father) bring verve and vibrancy to the adult roles and internet trolls. It’s a brilliant casting move that shows the pressure put on teens by both those they respect and those who exert power over them.

And the music — the music! Menefield describes his style as a “musical salad,” and there are a multitude of influences here: strains of Hammond organ, a blues moan, Afro-Cuban & Latin rhythms, and a rich, dynamic orchestral sound. Menefield blends these styles and more so organically without sacrificing their distinctness, creating a soundscape that is dramatically cohesive and individually descriptive.

Outside of a few moments of audio issues and inconsistencies between the supertitles and libretto, the Muses – Cincinnati Opera debuting artists Ellington, Tagert, Megan Graves (Rumer), and Lauren McAllister (Vesta) – were nothing short of glorious. Ellington was sparkling in showing the fidelity of her bravado and her uncertainty; Tagert’s pacing and volume in “How Do I Tell Them” left me in awe; Graves’ pathos in her first aria nearly brought me to tears; and McAllister’s shift between hopefulness and pain in “Otters are Magical” were nothing short of heartbreaking.

Composer William Menefield--Photo by Shawndale Thomas

Composer William Menefield–Photo by Shawndale Thomas

Minimalism is the word in the production and projection design of Samantha Reno and Jessica Drayton, respectively. Shards of glass emerge from the ground and the rafters, like a shattered mirror, ceiling, or phone screen. The glass reflects the girls’ situations, thoughts, and respective colors (Rumer is blue; Nyomi is green; Morgan is red; and Vesta is yellow). When they realize the strength of their friendship, their colors come together; and when they embrace their fierceness, it’s a chaotic, celebratory splash.

Fierce is one of several fantastic new operas that tells me this expressive medium may be returning as an interesting, viable method of storytelling for Black artists, new artists, contemporary artists. It might be going too far to say that opera will become a music of the people, but the more new works are staged and recorded and the more operas show the extraordinary in the ordinary, the less strange opera becomes. And the more vibrant our repertoire will be.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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