(Above: Anice Thigpen, composer of a new opera, “The Woman of Salt,” works with the performers for its world premiere on June 23.)
By Randi Bjornstad
It’s been in the works for years, and now it’s here: A brand new opera written by a local scientist-turned-composer specifically set to the voice of a local opera singer, has its world premiere on Jan. 23 in a local theater.
Anice Thigpen is the composer. Laura Wayte is the primary vocalist. The Wildish Community Theater is the place.
Several months ago, before a preview performance of some of the songs in her opera, “The Woman of Salt,” Thigpen shared the impetus for her foray into opera composition.
“In the 1980s, I incurred traumatic psychic wounds as a young mother,” Thigpen said. “Trauma tends to be open — to exist in the past, present and future — and it can’t be healed by thinking, it’s immune to that.”
The trauma, which involved her sexual orientation and the resulting effect on her relationship and rights to her young children, bedeviled her emotional state for years, said Thigpen, who grew up in rural Louisiana. The anguish did not begin to ease “until I met my spouse and she and I moved from Texas to Eugene, where I first felt that I might be safe.”
“I call Eugene my ‘promised land,’ ” Thigpen said. “I came here in 2005, and I began to meet the crucial people who have made all the difference in my life.”
First there was Jennifer Gordon, a Jungian analyst who helped her “develop the attitude and tools I needed to heal myself.”
Next came Laura Wayte and her husband, Lawrence Wayte, who happened to live across the street from the south Eugene home which Thigpen and her wife purchased.
“When we moved in, Laura saw that we had a grand piano, and she came over and said, “Hello, hello, I see you have a grand piano,” in her wonderful soprano voice,” Thigpen recalled. “From ‘hello, hello,’ we went on to attend our first house concert with Laura.”
Then one day several years ago, “Anice knocked on our door and said she wanted music lessons with Larry, to learn how to write an opera, even though her background was in biology,” Wayte said.
Lawrence Wayte, who has a master’s degree in in composition and a doctorate in musicology, initially responded to the request by saying, “We have classes for that at the University of Oregon,” Laura Wayte recalled, “but Anice said she only wanted to work with him.”
They became teacher and student and worked together for more than three years as Thigpen learned the technical aspects of composition, said Laura Wayte, who evaluates Thigpen’s opera as “very excellent musically.”
“The technical aspects are done very well,” Wayte said. “It’s very evocative. I’m so excited that something like this can happen in this community — it really speaks to the high number of people here who value the arts and act on that value.”
Thigpen drew “The Woman of Salt” from the Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot — the nephew of Abraham — and his family were ordered by two angels from God who told them to flee the civilization because God was about to destroy the wicked civilization and, above all, not to look back.
But Lot’s wife, who has no name in the biblical story, could not resist looking back at the place they had lived and was turned into a pillar of salt.
In a parallel to her own life, Thigpen acknowledged, once she developed the courage and self-love to look back, she was able to turn away from being the pillar of salt that she had become back into a whole human being.
“Opera, which is a combination of story and theater, is an art form that allows deep processing of difficult emotions,” Thigpen said. “When I needed help, I found opera was the perfect thing.”
The wife of Lot, whom she named Ah Doo, became an extension of herself.
“For the longest time, she was hanging out with me, and in my mind I heard her and three other creatures from another realm — I heard them singing first, for the longest time, and I wrote the score for their voices. Then, when I heard first heard Laura sing, I knew exactly who had to have the part.”
The performance at the Wildish includes two lead singers — Laura Wayte and baritone Bill Hulings — plus a chorus, a five-piece orchestra and a conductor. The opera is performed in costume on a stage set.
In this one-time show, Michael Sakir conducts, and Sara Widzer is stage manager, with costumes by Jonna Hayden and scene design and videography by Grant Preisser. Chris McGinley directs the chorus.
The Woman of Salt
When: 7 p.m. on Friday, June 23
Where: Wildish Community Theater, 630 Main St., Springfield
Tickets: $20 to $35, available at the door or online at wildishtheater.com/