Paola Prestini’s new opera Sensorium Ex premieres at Omaha’s The Common Senses Festival in 2025

‘To Have A Voice Is Everything’ – New opera in the spotlight at National Sawdust

At the end of ‘Opera Evolved: Genre Fluidity’, my friend turned to me and said, ‘Well, are we going to Omaha?’ Nebraska hardly trips off the tongue when it comes to opera destinations, but perhaps it should. In 2025, The Common Senses Festival will present the world premiere of Sensorium Ex, a remarkable new opera by composer Paola Prestini with a libretto by poet Brenda Shaughnessy.

Hailey McAvoy (mezzo-soprano), Jerron Herman (director/choreographer) and Paola Prestini (composer) © Jill Steinberg

Sensorium Ex was one of two operas explored in the second session of a series sponsored by National Sawdust and the Metropolitan Opera that focuses on the intersection of tradition and innovation in the genre. The other was John Adams’s El Niño, which will receive its Met premiere in April with Marin Alsop conducting. Adams’s opera was first staged in 2000 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, but never at the Met, although four others of his have been.

Scheduling changes resulted in a shift in emphasis towards Sensorium Ex, but director Lileana Blain-Cruz and bass-baritone Davóne Tines primed the audience for what to expect at the Met premiere of El Niño. Blain-Cruz, resident director at Lincoln Centre Theater, garnered notice with her Tony-nominated production of Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth in 2022. El Niño will be her directorial debut at the Met.

The moderator of the session, Ana De Archuleta, Managing Director of National Sawdust, probed Blain-Cruz on her concept for the production. Blain-Cruz obliged and gave a preview of the scenic designs that illustrated her fantastic depictions of natural settings and their link to the story for El Niño. It was Tine’s powerful performance of two arias, ‘Joseph’s Dream’ and ’Shake the Heavens’, that sealed the case for getting El Niño to the Met in April.

Adams composed El Niño in 2000, which was another era. Sensorium Ex is a work of today, which was demonstrated through its subject matter and embrace of technology and authenticity. The latter is a word bandied about a lot these days, as is inclusivity. The eloquent, profound and, at times, incredibly moving discussion led by De Archuleta with Jerron Herman, co-director and choreographer of Sensorium Ex, mezzo-soprano Hailey McAvoy, Blain-Cruz and Prestini, made those two words resonate as deeply as they possibly can.

Shaughnessy was not in the room, but it is her story or, actually, that of her family, writer Craig Morgan Teicher and their son Cal, that inspired Sensorium Ex. Cal has severe cerebral palsy and is non-ambulatory and nonverbal. However, he has a smile that ‘lights up a room like nothing else’ in his father’s words. Heroism and love are themes that have run through opera for centuries, but never one with a story such as this.

Commissioned and produced by VisionIntoArt and Beth Morrison Projects with funding from The Ford Foundation, Sensorium Ex is the epitome of what opera is not. It is centered on the use of the human voice beyond language in opera through the incorporation of non-speaking and non-typical patterns of speech. Artificial intelligence is being used to expand their possibilities.

Hailey McAvoy (mezzo-soprano) performing ‘Birdsong’ from Sensorium Ex © Jill Steinberg

Sensorium Ex tells the story of what it is to be human through the lens of a mother’s love, science/tech ethics, romance, corporate greed, a mystical escape and a robot named Sophia. The plot centers on Kitsune, a young boy with a disability who is non-speaking, and his relationship with his mother, Mem, as they seek to explore their own forms of expression, listening and understanding.

The musical voice of Sophia, the robot narrator of the story, will be developed by mining AI datasets on non-normative patterns of voice and speech. This technology is the work of the NYU Ability Program and Arup. The goal of the project extends beyond the opera, with the hope that its work will lead to the development of creative voice technologies for other artists with disabilities.

‍Compelling stories, impassioned creative teams and break-through technology, however, do not make for an opera. It is an elusive synergy that is impossible to verbalize and can only be experienced. Mezzo-soprano Hailey McAvoy and pianist Forrest Eimold provided the latter with a spellbinding performance of ‘Birdsong’ from Sensorium Ex.

McAvoy’s personal story of forging a career in opera with a disability – she has cerebral palsy – is inspirational. By making her condition known to all in the industry, she dares to be seen for her abilities and not her disability. She is becoming known for Mozart and Richard Strauss roles, but her talents extend to the demands placed upon her in the role of Mem in Sensorium Ex.

There was little to link the two operas. but Jerron Herman, who had been listening quietly most of the time, discerned just what did. El Niño is a retelling of the work confronting not only the Nativity of Christ but also the miracle of birth generally. Herman reminded Prestini that their source of inspiration for Sensorium Ex had been Michelangelo’s La Pietà. A mother’s love for her son was at the heart of both operas.

And Angela, it is probably a ‘yes’ on a trip to Omaha.

Rick Perdian

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