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Ambitious Original Opera ‘Cassandra’ Offers Timely Message of Truth and Resistance

Three students stand on stage during Cassandra dress rehearsal

Shelby Billups '20 (center) assumes the titular role of Cassandra, a mortal granted the power of prophecy by Apollo, but doomed to never be believed. Photo by Tristan Alston '22

When Professor of Music Tom Whitman ’82 and Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature Nathalie Anderson decided to collaborate on an original opera, the fifth of their partnership, they knew they wanted to create something that students would find relatable.

The result is an ambitious, student-driven, and interdisciplinary work entitled Cassandra: A Chamber Opera in Two Acts, which premieres in Lang Concert Hall on Friday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. and will also be staged on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.

In 2018, at the suggestion of Professor of Classics and Philosophy Grace Ledbetter, Whitman dove into the tragedies of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. He found Cassandra, a minor character in the play Agamemnon, to be of particular interest.

The mortal Cassandra is cursed by Apollo with an ironic gift after she spurns the god: She is given the power of prophecy, but doomed to never be believed. Cassandra accurately predicts the fall of her homeland, Troy, and the death of herself and her captor, Agamemnon, though her warnings go unheeded.

“I thought this was something that would be really resonant for the student body right now, for them even more so than people my age,” says Whitman. “They're really consumed by climate change and other issues where many people can see what’s coming and many other people refuse to believe it.”

“Cassandra’s circumstance—to speak the truth but never be believed—seems especially significant in our era of ‘fake news’ and the #MeToo movement,” adds Anderson. “Tom and I wanted to show the difficulty of that dilemma, but we also wanted to demonstrate the crucial importance of witness and testimony.”

Orchestra plays during rehearsal of Cassandra

Led by conductor Shira Samuels-Shragg '20, the chamber ensemble will play an original score composed by Whitman based on Anderson's libretto. Photo by Tristan Alston '22.

Anderson, who also worked with Whitman to create The Royal Singer: A New Children’s Opera for Swarthmore students in 2015, turned the kernel of an idea into a fleshed-out libretto, which was given to Whitman as he began to compose the musical score.

“The language in the libretto Nathalie has written is poetic and lyrical, but it feels fresh,” says Associate Professor of Theater K. Elizabeth Stevens, who is directing the production. “It doesn’t feel stilted and ancient, but rather relatable and modern.”

Once the libretto and score were finished, students took the baton and ran with it during weekly rehearsals throughout the semester.

Shira Samuels-Shragg ’20, a music major from Los Angeles, Calif., is tasked with conducting the nine-person chamber ensemble and has the added challenge of interpreting music that was never previously played by real instruments.

“I was really starting from scratch,” says Samuels-Shragg. “Tom sent me the MIDI recordings for reference, but I actually tried not to use those at first because I wanted to build the score in my head and with a piano, like he had done.”

On stage, Shelby Billups ’20 assumes the titular role and is countered by Omar Camps-Kamrin ’20, who performs double-duty as Cassandra’s antagonistic brother, Helenus, and her nemesis, Agamemnon, in both acts of the opera. In total, the chorus is composed of 15 singers, many of whom have prepared for the role through vocal coaching and participation in groups like Garnet Singers.

“It’s been amazing getting to know the story of Cassandra and see how the music underscores it,” says Billups, a psychology major from Henderson, Md. “Getting into the mindset of a character like Cassandra, who goes through so much over the course of the story, was challenging. She’s mocked, ignored, and captured, but still manages to stand firm and speak her truth. To portray such a character has been a privilege.”

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With many moving parts and collaboration among academic departments across campus, additional support from the President’s Office is helping students, faculty, and staff bring Cassandra to life on a grand scale. Photo by Tristan Alston '22

With so many moving parts and collaboration among academic departments across campus, additional support from the President’s Office is helping students, faculty, and staff bring Cassandra to life on a grand scale.

“This is a unique opportunity for students in the performing arts to come together and create something that crosses departmental boundaries in ways that illuminate each other,” says Whitman. “That’s what opera can do, but it’s an expensive endeavor so we’re thankful for the support of the President’s Office.”

Overall, the cast and crew hope that audiences will leave Cassandra: A Chamber Opera in Two Acts with an appreciation for the rigorous preparation and dedication of all involved and challenged perspectives on the nature of victimhood, bravery, and truth.

“I want them to have a great time, as well as have a chance to think about the themes and issues the opera addresses, and maybe come away with a new or more nuanced view,” says Camps-Kamrin, a music major from New York, N.Y. “In terms of lasting impression, I play a nasty twin brother and a very evil emperor, so I’ll be all right if the impression of me as those characters isn’t quite as enduring.”

Performances of Cassandra: A Chamber Opera in Two Acts will take place in Lang Concert Hall on Friday, Dec. 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m

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