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School of Music

BYU Opera Presents First Live Showings of 1920s Jazz-Inspired Opera from New York–Based Duo

Students Worked Directly with Librettist Rachel J. Peters and Composer Lisa DeSpain to Workshop and Present New Opera

When you think of opera, you typically don’t imagine the Roaring ‘20s or jazz music. BYU’s Opera program is presenting something new this year, in enhanced concert format. This spring, Rachel J. Peters and Lisa DeSpain’s jazz-inspired opera, Men I’m Not Married To, will premiere live at BYU. They will also showcase excerpts from Staggerwing, another opera from the New York–based duo.

Students in BYU’s Vocal Performance program usually perform two fully-staged operas a year, as well as an opera scenes program. This May, they had the honor of workshopping their chosen pieces with the composer (DeSpain) and the librettist (Peters), who will be attending the performances.

Both operas focus on the stories of women in the early 20th century. Shea Owens, Assistant Professor and BYU’s Director of Opera, said that Peters and DeSpain “tell of the struggles and achievements women have made in history and infuse them with energy and humor.”

Men I’m Not Married To is based on Dorothy Parker’s satirical short story of the same name set in the 1920s. In this operatic reimagining, three bridesmaids laugh together, bemoan their ill-mannered dates and cut their hair into bobs, all in the secluded safety of the ladies lounge.

DeSpain took elements from vaudeville songs and jazz bands as she was composing the music for this work. Peters also dove into the spirit of the time and said, “we really reveled in the 1920s slang and musical vocabularies.”

This opera came into being during the early days of the pandemic and was originally made for video release. Peters said, “These performances [at BYU] are not only the first live iteration, but the first where the performers are even able to be in the same space.” Both she and DeSpain are excited for the “rare gift of an orchestra.”

Staggerwing is set a decade later and depicts the story of two trophy-winning pilots. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the Bendix Trophy Air Race in 1936 (the first year that women were allowed to compete). Peters said, “Their historic victory remains a well-known source of inspiration among pilots but is less familiar to the rest of us. I’m fond of saying that if we all cared about anything as much as Louise Thaden cared about aviation, the world would be a much better place.”

The name of the opera comes from the plane Thaden and Noyes flew: a Beechcraft Staggerwing C-17. It celebrates the community of Wichita, Kansas and again takes musical notes from the jazz bands of the era.

Men I’m Not Married To and Staggerwing “dramatize hard-won seismic cultural shifts and advances for women that came with extraordinary complications,” said Peters. “We hope that audiences will identify some parallels in contemporary life.”

Owens said that both works “blur the lines between opera, musical theater and jazz.” They are “fun and energetic, even raucous at times, yet they also have moments of wonderful beauty and depth. We are proud to be performing their works at BYU this May.”

Text Reads: Spring Opera / May 26-27 at 7:30 PM / Music Building Choral Hall
Photo by BYU / Dylan Smith

Tickets and Show Details

  • Performance Dates and Times: May 26 & 27 at 7:30 PM
  • Location: Choral Hall (MB 2231) in the new School of Music Building
  • Price: $6-10
  • Tickets: Available by phone at (801) 422-2981 or online.