By Randi Bjornstad
The local arts-and-letters world has experienced its share of upheaval already this year.
A few weeks ago, the Eugene Opera announced that it was truncating its 2016-17 season for financial reasons, taking a breather to do some heavy-duty mulling over before it gears up — it hopes — for a return with a 2017-18 program.
Then, just this week the owner of Tsunami Books, one of Eugene’s oldest independent bookstores, announced that he was hosting a “Public Show of Support Day” to gauge how interested his patrons are in continuing the book sales, poetry and book readings and musical performances that have been Tsunami’s hallmarks for 22 years. The bookstore’s lease ends in June, and if the business is to continue at all, it will be at a rent at least double what it is now.
In an ironic twist, local opera singer and voice teacher Laura Wayte is putting on a performance on Feb. 10 that bridges the gap between the two.
Wayte, who has appeared in the past with Eugene Opera, will sing excerpts from an opera that has been written especially with her voice in mind by a local scientist-turned-composer who became interested in opera because of the women’s friendship.
Two “workshop performances” will take place on the stage at Tsunami Books, on Feb. 10 and again on April 15, before the full production happens in June.
“To me, the whole thing is one of those too-strange-to-believe kinds of stories,” Wayte said, beginning with the fact that Anice Thigpen, who composed “The Woman of Salt,” is not a musician at all but has a background in the sciences.
“Anice knocked on our door one day several years ago and said she wanted music lessons,” Wayte said. “She played piano, and her daughter is a singer and actress, but in the end she went away from music toward the biology field. After she moved to Eugene, she started attending the opera and concerts, and that’s how we met.”
Wayte’s husband, Lawrence Wayte, has a master’s degree in in composition and a doctorate in musicology, and he became Thigpen’s teacher. The two worked together for more than three years as Thigpen learned “the technical aspects of the music system,” Laura Wayte said.
“ ‘The Woman of Salt’ is very excellent musically,” she said. “The technical aspects are done very well. 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.”
“The Woman of Salt” comes from the Hebrew 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 cities and, above all, not to look back.
Lot’s wife — she is never given a name in the biblical story — could not resist looking back at the place they had lived and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Thigpen explained her choice to turn this story into an opera in a news release prepared by the Lane Arts Council.
“Opera is an art form that allows deep processing of difficult emotions,” she wrote. “When I needed help with that, opera was the perfect thing. I wish more people had that choice and access.”
Even though she did not have a formal music education, “That doesn’t stop me from resonating in a special way with opera, or from using it to express myself.”
Opera has a misplaced stereotype of being elitist, and Thigpen said she hoped her work would help to dispel that notion.
In addition to Thigpen’s “The Woman of Salt,” excerpts from other operas by local composers also will be performed on Feb. 10, including “Do you remember” from “The Banshee,” written by Daniel Daly and performed by soprano Alison Kaufman and pianist Nicholas Pietromonaco, and scenes from “Stop Bully!” by Jason Heald, performed by soprano Abbigail Coteand baritone Kevin Dempsey, with Donna Spicer at the piano.
Wayte, who sings soprano, will be accompanied in “The Woman of Salt” by pianist Nathalie Fortin, with Kathryn Brunhaver on cello.
Thigpend’s partner, Andrea Halliday, also is a producer of “The Woman of Salt.”
The Woman of Salt
What: One of three operatic excerpts that feature local opera composers Anice Thigpen, Jason Heald and Daniel Daly
When: 7 p.m. on Feb. 10
Where: Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette St., Eugene
Tickets: Sliding scale, $10 to $20
Information: 541-345-8986 or tsunamibooks.org