Enemies, a Kentucky Opera Story

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Composer Ben Moore writes about his journey in bringing ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY to the stage, and the role Kentucky Opera played, and continues to play, in that process.

Creating an opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s brilliant novel Enemies, a Love Story has been a long journey to say the least; one that has been difficult at times, but always stimulating and enriching. The talent, resources, and generosity of Kentucky Opera have been at the center of this journey. The simple truth is that without Kentucky Opera there would be no Enemies, a Love Story.

Chad Sloan and Caroline Knight Drury in Kentucky Opera’s workshop performance of ENEMIES.

Work on Enemies began in 2006 after I was encouraged by Sandy Fisher to write a new opera.   (Sandy was the Chairman of the Richard Tucker Foundation at the time and is also indispensable to Enemies’ existence.) After a presentation of my early efforts in Sandy’s apartment, the Great Recession struck and prospects for the opera’s development seemed to dim. Two years later, I got an email from Nancy Albrink who was helping David Roth (General Director, 2006-2015) develop his Composer Workshop at Kentucky Opera. As it happened, Nancy had heard her daughter, Emily, perform a song of mine at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. All this led to my participation in Kentucky Opera’s Composer Workshop in 2009. (Emily is a marvelous soprano and Louisville native who, I’m delighted to say, is singing the role of Yadwiga in this production.) I invited Librettist Nahma Sandrow to attend that first Workshop after which we began working together in earnest.

From the beginning, my goal had been to create an opera that is highly dramatic and also featured lyrical and melodic music, which I believe can be most effective in theatrical storytelling. The power of a good melody cannot be underestimated. It can draw us in, define character, highlight the most consequential moments in a story and, above all, tug at our hearts.  David Roth, Nancy Albrink, and the community of supporters at Kentucky Opera seemed to share my musical values. This made the program a perfect fit for me.

The Kentucky Opera Workshop in 2009 was with piano only.  In 2011, Kentucky Opera was awarded an Opera Fund Repertoire Development grant from OPERA America to present a second Workshop, this time with full orchestra in collaboration with the University of Louisville. Needless to say, this is a crucial second step for opera composers and librettists. Traditionally, Broadway musicals are developed through series of readings and workshops, followed by tryout runs, and then weeks of preview performances before opening night. Nothing like that exists in the opera world, so it falls to companies like Kentucky Opera to support composers in the development process.

Palm Beach Opera Production. Photo by Bruce Bennett.

In 2015, Palm Beach Opera gave the world premiere of Enemies, A Love Story. The response was very gratifying. Fred Plotkin of WQXR called it “an important new work that will find its place among those works that audiences will be moved by…” and The Wall Street Journal praised its “soaring Puccinian lines, folk tunes and klezmer melodies.” But the first fully realized production also taught us many lessons about how to improve the piece.

When Ian Derrer (General Director, 2016-2018) contacted me about the prospect of bringing Enemies back home to Louisville, we were more than thrilled. It has given us the opportunity to hone and revise the opera, and we are excited to see the changes realized in this new production directed by Mary Birnbaum. Although we are sad to lose Ian to Dallas Opera, the appointment of Barbara Lynne Jamison, Kentucky Opera’s newest General Director, was a wonderful surprise.  Barbara and I met at Seattle Opera earlier this year and I feel in her a kindred spirit.

Heather Phillips in Kentucky Opera’s workshop performance of ENEMIES.

So Enemies, a Love Story truly is “Enemies, a Kentucky Opera Story”!  I can’t express my gratitude enough to everyone in the Kentucky Opera community who has made this production possible. Enemies has so much to say to us as human beings.  It asks how one man and three women can survive in the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities, and it does it with melody and humor. My inspiration for this piece came largely from my dear Aunt Trudy who was among the last Jews to escape Germany in February 1940 and who lived in New York City for a time after the war.  Even as recently as 2014, new connections to her lost world of friends and family have been discovered.