Portland, OR (June 1, 2022) – Portland Opera is delighted to announce that the company has commissioned a new opera to be created by composer Damien Geter and librettist Lorene Cary. Connecting the heroic story of the original Fisk University Jubilee Singers with their current, Grammy-winning descendants, Jubilee investigates Black legacy, love, death, trauma, and joy.
"The Fisk Jubilee Singers are one of the most important threads that bind together the fabric of American music and culture,” says composer Damien Geter. “Their performances brought the spiritual—which serves as the foundation for much of America's popular music even today—into the concert hall. Yet their story and artistry are still unknown to many Americans. So, Lorene and I choose to share it in the same manner they expressed themselves: through song, and with the grandeur they deserve: through opera.”
“Damien Geter’s understanding of the spirituals, his feel for them, and his narrative passion make it a privilege to tell this story of Black brilliance with him for Portland Opera,” says librettist Lorene Cary. “Just as the young Fisk Jubilee singers brought the spirituals into the Western canon of great music, this work will bring them into opera halls.”
Jubilee will be written for 8 operatic soloists and a 15-piece orchestra. It will be workshopped in the springs of 2024 and 2025 and have its world premiere at the Newmark Theatre in March 2026.
“The goal of presenting new works is to be intentional about the stories we tell and giving over to authentic authorship,” says General Director Sue Dixon. “I believe Damien and Lorene will hold this beautiful story, filled with so much hope and redemption, with tenderness and heart. We’re thrilled to give them the creative space to bring this story to life!”
“As we continue to make new spaces in the repertoire for stories that define the American experience, we’re excited to expand the operatic circle to create operas that will become the ‘canon’ of the future,” shares Artistic Director Priti Gandhi. “Jubilee reveals a musical legacy that must be acknowledged as vital to who we are becoming now. Damien Geter and Lorene Cary are giving us the privilege of experiencing new sounds and voices that will continue to evolve the art form, and we’re truly honored to be a part of this journey with them.”
Damien Geter, composer
Damien Geter is an acclaimed composer based in Portland, OR, whose growing body of work includes chamber, vocal, and orchestral works. As a composer, Geter infuses classical music with various styles from the black diaspora to create music that furthers the cause for social justice. Recently, his composition An African American Requiem, commissioned for Resonance Ensemble, premiered to acclaim at the Oregon Symphony and had its East-coast premiere with the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center. Other recent compositions include commissions for The Washington Chorus (Cantata for a Hopeful Tomorrow), Washington National Opera, Opera Theater Oregon (Invisible), the University of Michigan (The Justice Symphony), and All Classical Portland (Neo-Soul). We Cannot Walk Alone for Imani Winds, co-commissioned by Anima Mundi Productions, Chamber Music Northwest, and The Oregon Bach Festival, premiered in April 2022. Future commissions include world premieres in 2024 and 2025, including Loving vs. Virginia an operatic retelling of the groundbreaking United States Supreme Court case centered around the interracial marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving, commissioned by Virginia Opera & Richmond Symphony.
Geter is also an acclaimed bass-baritone and actor, with performance credits ranging from the operatic stage (appearing with Portland Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, and other companies across the U.S.) to the television screen. He is the Artistic Advisor for the social justice-focused award-winning vocal ensemble Resonance Ensemble and is a scholarly author (Music in Context: An Examination of Western European Music Through a Sociopolitical Lens published by Kendall Hunt), and educator.
In 2021, he curated Portland Opera’s production of Journeys to Justice, in tandem with the launch of Portland Opera Onscreen. Since July of 2020, Geter has acted as co-Artistic Advisor for Portland Opera—where his diverse artistic background, mentorship, and vision continues to impact artistic and company planning, and in September 2021 he was named the company’s Interim Music Director.
A native of Chesterfield County, VA, Damien is an alumnus of the Austrian American Mozart Festival and the Aspen Opera Center. In addition to his artistic activities as a composer and performer, Geter has a history with the conductor’s baton. After studying voice and trumpet in his undergraduate work, Damien received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Old Dominion University, and continued on to earn a master’s degree in conducting at Indiana State University. You can learn more about Damien Geter here.
Lorene Cary, Librettist
Lorene Cary is an author, playwright, lecturer and advocate. Her most recent works include:
Ladysitting, a theatrical commission with Arden Theatre, Philadelphia, based on her memoir, which is currently in revision.
My General Tubman, premiered January 2020 at Arden Theatre in Philadelphia and featured as a virtual reading in the NJ Theatre Alliance 2021 Stages Festival. Tubman shows up in a Philadelphia prison to find men to fight with her in the Civil War. One of them decides to go back in time to marry her. Playing to sold-out houses, including high-school matinees, the play was twice extended, finally shut down in March by COVID.
Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century, published by W.W. Norton Books, in 2019, is also available as an audiobook recording. Five generations of family love and rupture aim my grandmother and our family toward caretaking her final year. Paperback: July 2020.
For the American Lyric Theater’s Composer & Librettist Development Program, Cary wrote a one-act opera libretto that takes off from Ladysitting. Composer Liliya Ugay set a lyrical score titled The Gospel According to Nana.
Non-fiction includes Cary's best-selling memoir Black Ice, Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century, a collection of stories for young readers, Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad, magazine articles and blogs. Novels include The Price of a Child, chosen as the first One Book One Philadelphia and the upcoming One Book One Norristown; Pride; and If Sons, Then Heirs.
Cary’s scripts for videos at The President's House exhibit on Independence Mall in Philadelphia show the lives of nine enslaved Africans who worked in the House next to where the Liberty Bell is now displayed.
For 25 years, Lorene Cary has taught fiction and non-fiction at UPenn. In 2018, she created #VotethatJawn to let students write blogs, social media, and articles to bring Philly youth to the polls. Their 2020 contributions were phenomenal.
More civic engagement: Art Sanctuary, founded in 1998 to enrich urban Philadelphia with the excellence of Black art; Union Benevolent Association, member and president; and, from 2011-2013, and as a member of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, and chair of the Safety Committee, eliminating zero-tolerance punishments for kids.
Cary's honors include: UPenn’s Provost's Award for Distinguished Teaching, The Philadelphia Award, and honorary doctorates from Swarthmore, Muhlenberg, Colby, and Keene State Colleges, and Arcadia and Gwynedd Mercy Universities. You can learn more about Lorene Cary here.