It’s not every day that Princeton undergraduates write operas, and it’s even rarer that they get to have their works performed full-scale at the Berlind Theatre. But this weekend, the Lewis Center for the Arts and Department of Music present “Off Court,” an original one-act opera written and composed by James Chu ’13 and librettist Lily Akerman ’13.
“Off Court” will be performed this weekend in the One-Act Opera Project, alongside two other original one-act operas, one by composer Anthony Davis and the other by composer and librettist Barbara White, professor of music. These unique new operas all seek to present the concept of “opera” in innovative ways. Though the pieces have conceptual differences, they share direction by Mark DeChiazza and musical conduction by Michael Pratt.
“Off Court” is a highly collaborative work between the writers, directors, composers and actors themselves; as Akerman describes, “It’s not one person’s project, but rather everyone’s project.” It’s a work built on the ideas and dreams of a whole team of directors, and the motley group of ideas contribute greatly to the innovativeness of this production. Indeed, even the set arrangement itself suggests a new form of opera: The musicians are placed on stage among the actors, and the minimalistic set seems to already anticipate what will be a unique and inventive redefining of the operatic genre.
Inspired by Chu’s own experiences, the production’s protagonist, Louisa, finds herself uncomfortable amid the pretentious community of her tennis club, while her husband, Henry, enjoys the fancy and elitist environment. The storyline develops the relationship between the married couple at the exclusive club, incorporating the absurdity of upperclass elitism that occurs off the tennis courts.
Chu, a music major, has studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London and plans to further his studies in music composition at conservatory upon graduation. Akerman currently pursues a certificate in theater and has performed in various dance and theater works at Princeton. Street sits down with the two to discuss the experience of watching their work come to life.
Q: What sources of inspiration were involved in this work?
A: Chu: I wanted to add to opera something that was dynamic in nature, true to life and contemporary. The idea of tennis was a given. I’ve played tennis my entire life. Somehow “Off Court” just had to be about tennis.
Q: What was the hardest part of the process?
A: Akerman: One hard part of the process was making the small writing decisions. Collaboration is a lot about compromising. Sometimes we disagreed about how something should sound, and to find a solution to the problem, we had to explain to each other why we wanted it the way we did. That’s something you don’t do when you’re working alone, and it’s hard because sometimes you don’t know exactly why you wanted it the way you wanted it, or you do know, but it takes a lot of persuading to agree on a solution.
Those discussions are maybe one of the best things about the process, too. James’s suggestions and questions have taught me so much, even about my own words. He’s kind of like a conscience. It’s hard having a conscience, but it keeps me from committing some crimes [of lyric-writing]. And his ideas are a guide for my words. Without James’s music, the words are pretty meaningless.
Q: What was the most enjoyable part?
A: Chu: Imagining. And of course, composing it. Imagining the characters and the scene was something I truly loved doing. I enjoyed thinking about how to bring forth how each character felt and how to express their demeanor in setting their lines. And it’s great to see the directors, musicians and conductor believe in music and add their own unique contribution to it. The most rewarding aspect of this process is being able to share the music, words and story I’ve come to love.
Akerman: People keep adding to the text, and it keeps changing, and that is strange and exciting to watch. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with all the people who are involved — students, community members, the director, designers, producers, advisers, technicians, administrators — for all the thought they’ve put into this..
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Jessica Ma.
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