Sense of Self, a new opera

On 27 June 2021, Opera Elect will premiere Sense of Self, a 10-minute opera for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and piano by Lisa Neher and me. The premiere is part of a three-work program also including composer Jessi Harvey’s The Anthropocene Vignettes, and Non Motus by composer Marc Hoffeditz and librettist Ilana Fogelson.

When we began collaborating, Lisa and I talked about our own identities and experiences, and it turns out that we have a lot of common ground. Two things came up immediately: we were both athletes, and both of us have family and friends who have had breast cancer. Lisa is a competitive runner and triathlete, and I have been a competitive equestrian and fencer and am now a swimmer, and we understand what deep knowledge of our bodies we have as athletes. Lisa found several articles about women athletes who had had to make very difficult decisions because of their breast cancer diagnoses; for professional athletes, whose bodies are their careers and who identify very strongly and deeply with their physical selves, the treatment choices available go beyond finding the best method for eradicating the disease from their bodies, but also influence their future abilities to continue as competitors.

In Sense of Self, we decided to write about a professional or very high-level amateur athlete–Maya–who is faced with a breast cancer diagnosis and is told she must have surgery, but–as is often the case–must make the final decisions about her treatment herself. We wanted to illustrate the difficulties of making these choices and how one woman examines her individual wants and needs and responsibilities in making her decision about treatment: Does she have reconstruction, which might mean removing muscle from her thigh or back to create a new breast? Does she have her lymph nodes removed, which can result in long-term complications? Does she have both breasts removed, even if only one currently shows signs of cancer? How will her choices affect her family? How does her desire to breast-feed possible future children influence the decision? She’s helped along the way by her trainer Naomi, who is initially all about the best diets! and the fastest ways to recondition an athlete’s body! and planning a return to competitive glory! but who has to realize the larger implications of a breast cancer diagnosis and surgical treatments before she can be of real support. Not all women in Maya’s situation would choose the same way: everyone must weight these decisions differently, and our opera depicts just one possible decision our of many equally valid choices.

Here’s the full info on Sense of Self, along with the program note. You can purchase the score here, and we would love to know if you perform it.

Characters:
MAYA (soprano), a triathlete or para-triathlete, of any age. Range: C4-B-flat5 (ossia C6)
NAOMI (mezzo-soprano), her coach, of any age. Range: B3-F#5

Instrumentation: Piano

Length: 10 minutes

Note on Casting: The composer and librettist both support the casting of any kinds of bodies for this opera. The singers do not need to be thin or display physical traits traditionally thought of as “athletic.” They can be plus-size, disabled, non-binary, trans, or have any other kind of bodies. Throughout, the singers should be free to move as much as they want or can, being active and keeping things dynamic, and indicating how important bodily movement is to their identities as athletes.

Setting: A gym or track or athletic training facility, or a room in MAYA’s or NAOMI’s home equipped for exercise. The singers can be on bikes up on trainers, stretching, or doing other activities appropriate for a coaching session.

Program Note: Triathlete Maya’s hopes for the coming race season come to a sudden halt when she is diagnosed with breast cancer and must decide between surgical options. Her coach, Naomi, is ready to tackle recovery and reconditioning with a positive attitude and the latest wellness trends, but Maya isn’t ready for those yet. She has to consider how her choice impacts her entire future—as an athlete and as a whole person.

Sense of Self gives voice to the power and joy of female athleticism, the strength of women’s friendships, and to the challenging decisions women must make when confronted with breast cancer. The opera explores the impact of cancer on women’s sense of empowerment, plans for the future, family obligations, and self- image, and offers a vision of strength and hope for reinvention and renewal.

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