By Laurana Wheeler Roderer
Formal preparations for this project began in April 2019, but this idea has been a long time in the making. Let’s start with a story. It’s fall 2016, and I’m a college freshman watching the Fry Street Quartet perform their Crossroads project, which blends musical performance and visual art with a scientific presentation on climate change. At this point in my life, I was apathetic when it came to climate change. I didn’t know much about it, and thinking about it wasn’t a priority for me. But after watching this incredibly compelling project, the gears started turning, and the questions started piling up. If this is real, and it is as dire as they say it is, what do I do? I couldn’t ignore it any more, and I couldn’t just stand aside, but I felt just like our character Alma when she says, “I am but a child, with nothing to give for her aid.” I got to talking with Kirsten Barker, my much more scientifically-inclined friend and colleague. With the scope of the global climate emergency becoming more apparent, we wanted to add our voices to the growing discourse on climate change. The way forward wasn’t immediately clear to us, and as musicians we weren’t entirely sure what our role was in combating climate change. So began the long brainstorm which eventually led to some progress.
We wanted to create a project which dealt with energy – how we currently use energy and how we have to transform our energy systems to live sustainably. Our original idea was to commission a composer to write a string quartet, partially because we had recently seen a colleague premiere a new string quartet for a successful project titled “Plastic Ocean.” But a purely instrumental genre seemed too abstract to communicate the concept of energy, which is not as tangible as other concepts related to environmentalism. We needed a musical genre which could communicate words and emotion, and opera emerged as the obvious choice. With the performing forces and budget available to us, we decided on a chamber opera written for string quartet and three voices. This small ensemble lends itself well to the intimate way the story explores personal transformation.
Once we decided on the medium for our project, a lot of big choices awaited us. The first problem to tackle was that an opera needs words, and we needed to find a librettist. We originally thought of commissioning a professional writer to come up with a libretto, but it quickly became obvious that we were the best suited to say what we wanted to say. Keep in mind, Kirsten and I are both undergraduate music students, and while we are strong writers, we were wildly unprepared for the challenges of writing our own libretto. The only way to start was to write a mess of a first draft and brace ourselves for a lot of revisions. We started with an allegory and characters whose relationships to each other represented society’s current relationships to certain forms of energy like fossil fuels, hydro-electric power, wind and solar energy. However, opera is about human drama, and that was missing from our early drafts. We didn’t just need to talk about energy systems changing, we needed to talk about people changing and human systems changing. Ultimately, the original allegory became more subtle, giving way to beautiful stories of personal transformation.
Even after we had a clear idea of what we wanted to say, we had a lot of trouble finding the right words. To give us a launching point, we searched for poetic texts on topics in the story. Our first draft started with a lot of borrowed text, and would have translated into an opera a few hours long… Words are precious in opera, and in subsequent libretto drafts we had to pare down the words by finding exactly what we were trying to say with the poems. Poetic texts became a tool which helped us find our own creative voice. For various reasons, we felt it was important to keep a few passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lord Byron’s “Darkness,” Wallace Stegner’s “Lake Powell,” Walt Whitman’s “The Years of the Modern,” Emily Dickinson’s “Forever–is composed of nows,” and the words of the inspirational young environmental activist, Greta Thunberg.
Opera needs a composer who can set the words to music. We brainstormed a few ideas, but the best choice for this project was almost immediately apparent. Emma Cardon, a student composer from Cache Valley who has experience writing music which addresses the environment. We gave her the libretto in pieces and discussed the effect we were trying to accomplish, and after a few months she would return music to us, one scene at a time. Emma has a beautifully unique compositional voice, and her magnificent themes undergo their own unique transformation over the course of the opera.
Emma described her process to us via email:
“One idea that was very central to the composition of the music was that of organic unity–I wanted the opera to breathe and grow, just like a living organism. The entire work is built on recurring motives associated with different characters or ideas; as the characters develop, their motives do as well, often combining with other motives as the characters influence each other. The voice of the earth from the prologue returns in Scene 2, this time sung by characters determined to fight for the environment. Similarly, an angular, mournful melody from Scene 1 returns in the Finale, now transformed to reflect the characters’ optimistic view of the future. During the composition process, I assembled a toolbox of motives and musical ideas and limited my composition to just those materials. My goal was to create a musical world that reflected the natural flow of the libretto.”
Surprisingly, the title was one of our most persistent challenges. Nothing from the libretto seemed like title material that was evocative, concise, and not preachy. After months of calling it “the chamber opera,” we rediscovered the quote by Walter Benjamin which you can see here. We extracted from the longer quote the line “this storm is what we call progress.” In a work which is meant to deal with the transformation of human systems, the keyword was “progress.” We adjusted the title to say “A Storm We Call Progress,” giving it some ambiguity.The storm we call “progress” in terms of economy and industrialization is what got us into the mess we are in with climate change, but a different storm we call “progress” is what we will get us out of this mess. Like a storm, nothing about the forthcoming process to solve our climate crisis will be clean, orderly, or easy to predict.