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'Staggerwing' Aims To Makes Opera More Inclusive

Smithsonian National Air and Spa
Smithsonian National Air and Spa

Opera Kansas hosts the premiere of a new opera, Staggerwing, this weekend.

The English-language opera retells the story of Louise Thaden and co-pilot Blanche Noyes’ historical flight in the transcontinental 1936 Bendix Trophy Race.

Opera Kansas presents the world premiere of "Staggerwing," the new opera from composer Lisa DeSpain and librettist Rachel J. Peters, on July 30 with encore performances on July 31 and Aug. 1.

The performances will be held at the Kansas Aviation Museum. Performances will also be livestreamed.

"Staggerwing," which won the 2020 Zepick Modern Opera Competition, retells the story of Louise Thaden and co-pilot Blanche Noyes' historical flight in the transcontinental 1936 Bendix Trophy Race. That was the first year that the competition allowed all-female teams to compete.

The English language opera tackles issues of sexism, determination and friendship across a musical landscape that blends elements of the blues, jazz and the music of Tin Pan Alley.

Peters and DeSpain recently spoke with KMUW about the opera and the importance of inclusivity in the arts.

Interview Highlights

Tell me about the genesis of "Staggerwing."

Rachel J. Peters: We learned about the call for submissions that Opera Kansas had, and we knew that we couldn't pass it up. The theme was supposed to be, "The unexamined life is not worth living." We were looking for characters and stories specific to Wichita and, also because we have a very strong interest in female protagonists, we were looking for stories of important historical figures who were female in Wichita, who would be important to the community seeing the opera. We eventually settled on these lovely women, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes and Olive Ann Beech.

Learning about Olive Ann and Walter Beech led me to the Bendix race and Louise and Blanch. The word "Staggerwing" popped out at me while I was doing the research. I said, "That's it! That's the title!"

Lisa DeSpain: You can say, "A life unexamined [is not worth living]" and there are so many grand historical figures that are well-known, like Amelia Earhart. I think what's also interesting to me personally and, I think Rachel and I, is that we care about people that are like us, that do extraordinary heroic things. Everybody knows about Amelia Earhart but do they all know about Olive Ann Beech and how she was such a strong advocate — her and Walter Beech both were — for female pilots and for aviation history? That's the kind of stories I love to celebrate, those unsung heroes, that connect to the audience deeply. They can see themselves doing heroic deeds through learning these stories.

It seems that there's an element of inclusivity with this opera.

Lisa: That's one of the things that's incredibly important. To me, that is a mission statement, for me as a composer from beginning to end. I came from a non-musical family. My musical studies were in jazz, and I studied musical theater.

I always wanted to write something that my father and my family would come to [as they didn't] grow up in the musical community. I just love that community, and I think everybody should engage with the arts because the arts should not be exclusive; it should be inclusive. It's part of what makes us beautiful as humans and gives richness to our lives. It's how we communicate who we are, where we are, what we feel. And that is not the province of an exclusive community. It is the province of being human.

Rachel: People have craved storytelling in all its forms forever and ever. And this is just another mutation of that. And while nobody wants a pandemic, what that has made obvious is that we are constantly hungry for storytelling. The silver lining of it all is that there's been this absolute explosion of variations on this art form by all kinds of people, not just at these huge institutions with huge budgets. But companies and artists of all scales all over the country, all over the world, sharing their own twist on what this art form is and has been and can be and people are just doing so much exciting work. And we are really proud to be working with Opera Kansas and to be a part of that.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.