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Gregory Spears's "O Columbia" a "piercingly moving" and "haunting meditation on exploration"

Following its premiere at Houston Grand Opera on September 23, Heidi Waleson of the Wall Street Journal has hailed Gregory Spears's new opera-oratorio, O Columbia, as "piercingly moving" and "a haunting meditation on exploration."


(Photo Credit: Lynn Lane, Wall Street Journal)

Presented as part of the company's HGOco community initiative program, the production featured direction by Kevin Newbury and was conducted by Timothy Myers, with a cast including soprano Pureum Jo, baritone Ben Edquist and mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin. O Columbia, with an original libretto by Royce Vavrek, is a celebration of exploration and a reflection upon the risks of discovering new frontiers. Through the work’s three parts the listener rides with Sir Walter Raleigh and a mysterious figure on the bow of his ship heading for the New World; sits with a teenager as she experiences communion, and later, heartbreak, with a Columbia space shuttle astronaut gliding around the earth; and travels with three astronauts to the far reaches of the solar system with Lady Columbia waiting at the edge. 

The work is a celebration of the identity of the American frontiersperson and an ode to America’s national mythology. In preparing the production, Vavrek writes that "we went to the Johnson Space Center and spoke to astronauts, engineers and other employees... we thought that, in our opera, we could return to the promise of space exploration. O Columbia blossomed into a work that celebrated the spirit of the frontiersman, as opposed to a tragic story." Waleson praises the work for its "neoclassical-style clarity," "crystalline orchestrations" and "textured, complex musical structures that sound old and new at the same time." Spears's next opera, Fellow Travelers, receives its premiere later this season by Cincinnati Opera

Below, watch a performance of Spears's recent cantata Virginiana, for solo voices and early instrument ensemble.

Virginiana was commissioned and premiered by New York's New Vintage Baroque and the Netherlands' Damask Ensemble. Written in the spirit of neoclassical works like Stravinsky's Pulcinella and The Rake's ProgressVirginiana explores 18th-century North American aesthetics as heard through a contemporary lens, with a text by Robert Bolling (1738-1775).

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