Think of it as jurisprudence with arias.
“Voir Dire,” the opera that will receive its world premiere during the 2017 Fort Worth Opera Festival, brings the formal machinations of the law to the dramatic musical stage. Created by Jason Zencka (libretto) and Matthew Peterson (music), the opera is set entirely in a rural Wisconsin courthouse, and is built on cases presented there and witnessed by Zencka, a former journalist.
Zencka covered court proceedings at the Portage County courthouse for the Stevens Point (Wisc.) Journal. For Zencka, the courthouse was a place where he could gaze into the souls of the people of his community.
“You hear people’s secrets. You hear all the ugliest, most unrefined moments of their life filtered through this really stuffy, legal language,” he says. “And it struck me that opera works that way, too. It is an artificial medium because, all of a sudden, somebody starts singing. But contained in that singing is all this gritty stuff of life, and kind of marrow-deep feeling. So Matt and I thought it was a good match. There are [court] rooms like this all over the world. So we thought it was a good way to tap into some of that magic and weirdness.”
“Voir Dire” has a place in this year’s festival at least in part because it was selected as one of the outstanding works in the opera’s 2014 Frontiers event, a showcase for new works that takes place during each year’s festival. The opera is being presented at McDavid Studio under the “Opera Unbound” banner, which is used for contemporary chamber operas presented as part of the festival. All six performances have sold out, and there’s a wait list for tickets.
Zencka says that it was the surreal nature of what he witnessed on a daily basis at the courthouse that inspired him to write this opera with Peterson. The title is a legal term that translates literally as “see say.”
“This is not a political opera, per se,” he says. “But it did come as a result of me wrestling with this kind of absurdity at the courthouse that I couldn’t categorize. I was constantly seeing life and death and murder, and all this grisly stuff. I wonder if it wasn’t kind of a psychological necessity for me to write this, like a valve to expel some of that dramatic steam. Maybe I needed this.”
The work comes with a disclaimer from Fort Worth Opera that it is for mature audiences only, contains graphic language and adult content.
It is not recommended for those under 18 years old.
While the opera deals with several of the cases Zencka saw as a reporter, the librettist says that the man on the bench is the central character.
“It has a series of scenes, and you are more or less following a judge as he watches this carnival go by him,” he says. “So you see the wear and tear on him. That is what gives us a through line, seeing what residue is left on him from these cases.”
While many of those cases are grim, Zencka also found room for some of the lighter moments that can pop up in the somber confines of a courtroom.
“There was this one case where two women were fighting over the custody of a bird,” Zencka says. “So that is one of the scenes in the opera.”
And, during the creative process, there were also times when Zencka and Peterson were fighting for custody of the opera. The men have known each other and worked together since their college days at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College.
“Matt and I … were next door neighbors. We know each other very well,” says Zencka. “So there is there is a lot of daydreaming, a lot of bickering, a lot of argument. I like to compare [the librettist-composer] relationship to a healthy marriage: You need to know how to fight. Matt and I have learned how to disagree with one another and make our work stronger. It’s an exciting process to be working with someone else collaboratively, and giving up ownership of the work in some ways to make it better.”
Directed by Fort Worth Opera favorite David Gately, “Voir Dire” stars Nate Mattingly (FWO’s “Hamlet”) and Hattie Mae Lesley apprentice artists Anna Laurenzo (“Buried Alive/Embedded”), Trevor Martin (“The Barber of Seville”), Christina Pecce and Andrew Surrena. Viswa Subbaraman will make his FWO debut as conductor.
“[FWO’s Frontiers showcase] did a whole lot for us, especially in terms of having confidence in the piece,” Zencka says. “We wrote the opera close to nine or 10 years ago. Matt has worked really hard to keep it alive, and putting those defibrillator pads on it when needed. So Frontiers did that for us.
We were able to make some important revisions as a result of it. We are very grateful for that experience.”
For his part, Zencka, 33, has switched careers. He now teaches high school English in Minneapolis. He has not seen rehearsals for “Voir Dire” and says he is anxious to see the results of all of the years of effort.
“I feel like it is a prodigal son returning,” he says. “I don’t know what he is going to look like. I’m looking forward to seeing it as an audience member, too.”
Punch Shaw is a Fort Worth freelance arts and entertainment writer.
Fort Worth Opera Festival
April 15-May 7
Grand Opening Night Concert: 7:30 p.m. April 15; Bass Hall. $17-$89
“Carmen”: 7:30 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. April 30, and 7:30 p.m. May 5; Bass Hall. $17-$195
“Cruzar la Cara de la Luna”: 7:30 p.m. April 29, and 2 p.m. May 7; Bass Hall. $17-$175
“Voir Dire”: All performances are sold out; McDavid Studio at Bass Hall. To be placed on the wait list, call the box office at 817-731-0726.
Frontiers: 8 p.m. May 3 and 4, McDavid Studio at Bass Hall
Festival packages are $36-$379.
For more information and tickets, call 817-731-0726 or visit www.fwopera.org.
Fort Worth Opera kicks off the 2017 Festival with a Grand Opening Night Concert and a multicourse dinner April 15 at the City Club of Fort Worth. An opening-night dinner at Grace will mark the first performance of “Carmen” on April 22. For reservations for each dinner, $150, call 817-288-1214 or visit www.fwopera.org.