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Opera: Oceanic Verses

Novus NY and Washington Chorus conducted by Julian Wachner

Commissioned in part by Carnegie Hall, Official Selection New York City Opera VOX 2010, excerpts performed on 21c Liederabend 2011 at the Kitchen with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Oceanic Verses was expanded from a 35′ oratorio to an evening length production which previewed at Opera America at the opening of their annual conference, and premiered at the Kennedy Center and River to River summer with the Washington Chorus in 2012 and premiered in its orchestrated version at the Barbican Centre with the BBC Symphony orchestra in May, 2013.

Film by Ali Hossaini. Libretto by Donna Di Novelli.

Oceanic Verses is a 35 minute cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and a 90-minute multi-media concert event (both for chorus and chamber ensemble or orchestra) with a musical score created with folk music, improvisation, and contemporary classical music by composer, Paola Prestini. The soundscape brings together choruses, soloists, and instruments, and engages professional musicians and choruses to explore the lives of four characters caught in an ancient landscape continually transformed by waves of immigration. A meditation on fading civilizations, the investigation is led by an Archaeologist, (improviser Helga Davis) whose search into musical artifacts leads her to be caught in a collision of the past and present. She meets a Sailor, (folksinger Claudio Prima) who offers a hand; a Peasant (soprano Hila Plitman) who offers a meal; and a Soldier (Christopher Burchett) who offers a critique. Projected throughout the performance, a film by Ali Hossaini’s offers a contemporary perspective on the struggles within the opera through the prism of the character’s emotional states. The sequences are a part of a larger video environment that immerses the opera’s players and audience in the folkloric landscape that inspired it.


The Mediterranean Sea and its shores. The past, present and future crash onto the land’s edge offering a promise and a dare to those willing to cross the oceans to reach it. The dangers inherent in the turbulent waters are personified by a Chorus.


THE SCHOLAR American. Archaeologist. Searching for artifacts that sing of those in transit, across oceans and across time. She takes notes.

THE SAILOR Part Italian, part Greek, part Albanian, part African. He lives on the Adriatic and understands its currents. He will tie you in knots.

THE PEASANT She works in the fields all day, and cooks all night. Smarter than dirt. She is tied to her own apron strings.

THE SOLDIER Tied to the land. Famished. He searches for a good woman-and a good meal.

Oceanic Verses began as a Carnegie commission-created from sourced text taken through the ages; it was chamber work that painted a picture of Italy as it once was, a cross section of cultures expressed through song. By examining and researching the Salento region which maintains many ancient traditions and still speaks a nearly forgotten language, I created a work that illuminated the complex ethnic mosaic that has shaped my cultural heritage. The story was derived from the texts of the songs chosen and intermittent poems from a variety of Italian poets through time such as Vittoria Colonna, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Dante Alighieri and Aleardi. Oceanic Verses is sung in various dialects including Griko, Byzantine Greek, Arabic, Ladino, and Bourbon Spanish, coloring the work with the ethnic influences of Salento region.
My exploration of lost songs began in 2007, when I was in residence at Sound Res in Lecce, Italy, and my understanding of Italy and my own heritage expanded, and I became acutely aware of this ancient isthmus to be in a geographical position to make it a cross cultural land full of artistic hybrids. I began to record sound samples.

An opera, exploring the complexity this character-my native land-with its layers of invasions and empire building; the nexus of emigration and immigration; in constant flux and transformation as it remains a three-sided port of call, has become a metaphor for a today’s global struggle with issues of borders and immigration and how it collides with one woman’s search for her internal geography.

Produced by Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt