Opera "Proving Up" tells Nebraska Story

Omaha World-Herald: Opera "Proving Up" tells Nebraska Story
By Betsie Freeman

For staffers and supporters of Opera Omaha, this year’s inaugural ONE Festival is the culmination of a dream. The centerpiece of the event, a new opera called Proving Up, itself centers on a dream, though it’s a dream that for many is far less attainable than was the festival. "Proving Up is about the harsh realities of the American Dream, about the role of fate in our destinies and also about people who are erased from history,” the opera’s composer, Missy Mazzoli, said in program notes.

The opera premieres Friday in the Bow Truss Gallery at Kaneko and will be performed several times during 20-day the festival. In Proving Up, the quest for the American Dream is found in rural Nebraska shortly after the Civil War. A family of four — Ma and Pa Zegner and sons Peter and Miles — moved west to homestead on the prairie. They encounter numerous hardships as they attempt to attain the title to a homestead, breaking their spirit and blurring their path to the American Dream.

The 75-minute piece was commissioned by Opera Omaha, the Washington National Opera and the Miller Theatre at Columbia University in New York City. It’s based on a novel by Karen Russell, with Canadian Royce Vavrek as librettist. John Moore, a native of Okoboji, Iowa, plays Johannes Zegner. He made his Opera Omaha debut in the company’s annual outdoor concert in 2015, Talise Trevigne is Ma Zegner. James Darrah is director and Christopher Rountree is conductor. Opera expert Fred Plotkin points out opera’s history of pieces about the American Dream in an article in the ONE Festival program. He says the topic is a natural for the art form, using Madame Butterfly, about a Japanese woman who renounces her culture to marry an American soldier, and La Fanciulla del West, about miners and outlaws on the frontier, as examples.

The topic is relevant no matter when an opera was written or is being performed. Mazzoli says she started to think about an opera centered on the issue in 2008, when the U.S. foreclosure crisis was making headlines. “Thousands of American throughout the last 300 years did everything ‘right’ and still failed, were still undermined by circumstance just like the Zegner family in this story,” she said in Plotkin’s article. “The Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2016 presidential election brought these themes into focus for me, as people started talking in a more nuanced way about the realities of wealth, poverty and economic mobility (or lack thereof) in America.”

She also wanted to examine the concept of hope, especially as it pertains to the American Dream. Both Mazzoli and Vavrek spent considerable time in Nebraska as they finished Proving Up, and both are thrilled that the work is being staged here. Vavrek told Plotkin that he always envisioned that the opera would be presented in the state in which it’s set. “It’s a complete dream come true to have this opera come to life at Opera Omaha,” he said. “It’s an incredible company that is really on the forefront of contemporary music, and they understand the energy required to realize new work.”