A ‘Fierce’ new opera inspired by teenage girls

Pandemic gave time to refine Cincinnati Opera commission by Menefield and Williams

Finally. It has taken two years, but in July we will get to see and hear Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of “Fierce,” with a score by William Menefield and libretto by Sheila Williams.

Sheila Williams and William Menefield by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers
Sheila Williams and William Menefield
Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers

“We started this sometime in 2018,” said Menefield, a Cincinnati native who is now an assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of Iowa. As he zips through the timeline of the opera’s convoluted birthing process, you get the sense he has told this tale many times before. First came Williams’ libretto, then Menefield’s initial piano score and the first workshops. “Those were both in 2019. And then, we had a second workshop in January 2020.” And then he pauses.

“Well, you know what happened then.” 

Obviously, Menefield was deeply disappointed when the pandemic brought about the indefinite postponement of his debut as an opera composer. Rather than be one of the small gems in Cincinnati Opera’s 100th-anniversary season, “Fierce” went into an artistic deep freeze, landing somewhere between a hiatus and creative limbo.

Big break had to wait

This was to have been Menefield’s big break in the world of classical music. He was already established as a jazz pianist, playing local clubs and eventually ending up in the thick of Atlanta’s vibrant jazz scene. But as a kid attending Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, this was the sort of opportunity he had dreamed of. 

“I grew up with opera,” he explained. “My mother sang opera. All of that made this so much more important. Also, I viewed this as a chance to connect with an audience that might not be as exposed to opera.”

This was a chance to make a big splash on a big stage. And in his hometown, at that. But after taking a moment to let all that sink in, he added a confessional note.

“It was definitely tragic,” he said. “But to be honest, it worked out to our benefit. We needed more time. At least I did.”

Menefield is an experienced composer. But because “Fierce” was his first opera, he hadn’t grasped just how long and complex the process of orchestrating and refining the work would be. 

Far more complicated

“I was trying to incorporate many different genres,” said Menefield. “Sometimes you’d hear sounds you might associate with traditional opera. But other times, there was R&B, Afro-Cuban, reggae, blues – even rock. It was a real genre salad. But making all of those work together seamlessly in an orchestration was more complicated than I realized it would be.”

He could do it while improvising at a piano in a nightclub, mind you. But this was “opera.” It carried a different stylistic weight. And besides, his music was part of a very specific narrative, not an improvisation that he alone was guiding.

Making the entire process even more complicated was that “Fierce” had a rather unorthodox beginning.

Many new operas have their roots in literature or a tale drawn from history books. Not “Fierce.” This tells the story of four teenage girls who gather for a workshop that promises to help them write a surefire college admissions essay. The instructor invites each girl to talk about her life. That begins a narrative that wends its way through four very intimate and revealing musical profiles. Making the story even more unusual is that most of the material is based on the real-life experiences of a group of young Cincinnati women.

The opera began with a nudge from Marcus Küchle, who was the Cincinnati Opera’s director of artistic operations and new works development before he left in 2018 to become the top administrator of the Tiroler Festspiele – the Tyrolean Festival – in Erl, Austria.

Giving voice to those never heard

Küchle said some of the “self-enlightenment” that preceded ”Fierce” went back to the formative period of an earlier opera; “Blind Injustice,” a work that told the stories of six Ohioans who had been sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. One of the aspects of this work that he found most profound is that, by taking on the project, Cincinnati Opera was giving voice to people whose voices were never heard on the opera stage before.

“That was a real turning point,” Küchle said recently. “That taught us that you can work with anybody and you can find common ground that is meaningful to a lot of people. And that can reach people that before you were not able to reach. And you can have real human-to-human bonds with people that you have nothing in common with.”

Soon after, he spent time with the young music students involved in MYCincinnati, an affiliate organization of Price Hill Will that is devoted to using “ensemble-based music as a vehicle for youth development and community engagement.”

It was an eye-opener.

“I learned so much from Eddy (Kwon, the director of MYCincinnati). He taught me that you can work with kids who make music on any skill level. There is a way to get them involved. And there is much that we can learn from them.”

Connecting to WordPlay, MRC

In time, those encounters led Küchle and his opera colleagues to WordPlay Cincy and The Music Resource Center – Cincinnati, organizations that teach young people to use words and music, respectively, to give themselves greater voices in their communities.

That was when Sheila Williams got involved. She’s a novelist – “a beloved author,” in the words of her former publisher, Penguin Random House – of several well-received novels; “Things Past Telling,” “The Secret Women” and “The Shade of My Own Tree,” among them. Another, “Dancing on the Edge of the Roof,” was adapted into “Juanita,” a Netflix film starring Alfre Woodard. Her most recent books, “The Secret Women” (2020) and “Things Past Telling” (2022) were published by Amistad/HarperCollins.

Williams seemed an ideal candidate for the job. Her books tend to focus on strong women or women who tap into strengths they didn’t realize they had. And from the earliest stages of its development, “Fierce” was going to focus on the stories of young women.

Sheila Williams and William Menefield by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers
Sheila Williams and William Menefield
Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers

“WordPlay Cincy proposed to me a conversational format,” recalled Williams. “I started with 10 young women. And for several months we would meet over pizza and soda, over nail polish, over cookies – and we talked. A lot. It was my job to make them feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts. Not just simple observations. That’s why it took so long. I wanted them to share much deeper thoughts; about their lives and contemporary society. About their dreams and fears, about their experiences in life.”

Williams has an easy, unthreatening manner about her. She’s serious. But in time, the young women – most of them in high school – came to see her as a mother confessor, someone they could readily take into their confidence.

The long, rambling conversations that resulted from that slow trust-building process provided the raw dramatic materials for Williams’ libretto for the 80-minute opera. The intention wasn’t to mold the libretto out of the young women’s words. Rather, it was to shape their ideas into themes that would provide the dramatic underpinnings of the opera.

Williams protected their privacies

“When you hear the opera, you’re hearing my words,” said Williams. She didn’t use the participants’ names or include anything that would enable people to identify them. “I thought it was important to maintain their privacy. So I did not quote them in that way. Having said that, though, each woman provided a point of inspiration that is woven into the fabric of the story.”

It was unlike any work she had ever done before. There was no creative road map for her to follow. As a result, she was constantly second-guessing herself.

“I am the empress of overthinking,” said Williams. “As I worked on it, I remember thinking that, Number 1, ‘I have failed.’ And Number 2, ‘I will be fired.’ I was always thinking about the eventual audience for the opera. But my first job was to write something that inspired William. And then to provide Lynn Meyers (the director) with something that could contain all of this narrative. In the end, I just decided to step back and tell the story. I hoped that would give William something that could make him laugh or be angry or whatever the story called for. And once I stopped overthinking, it worked out.”

She vividly remembers the initial workshop and the rehearsal when she got together with Menefield and Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.

“It was surreal for me,” she said. “The first time I heard the artists singing – I think it was the first aria that William wrote – I didn’t recognize me in it at all. It’s almost as if those words had become their own entity. I was just amazed. I almost did not recognize my words. I was so captivated by all of it that William had to remind me that I was actually listening to words that I had written. It was a remarkable experience.”


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