24 June 2015

Interview: Caroline Worra on ‘The Long Walk’

Soprano Caroline Worra:
The Champion of New Opera.

Though I first heard her in Verdi, soprano Caroline Worra has over the years earned a sterling reputation for new work, singing in premieres and near-premieres with opera companies across the United States. When Mark Adamo’s Little Women opened at Glimmerglass, there was Caroline Worra, who managed to make Amy (my least-favorite March sister) appealing and sympathetic. When Fort Worth Opera brought Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied to the stage, there was Caroline Worra again, bringing life to a modern-day Penelope whose husband’s long wartime odyssey cost them both all that they shared.

I started to count up the contemporary roles in her repertory — The Mines of Sulphur, Lizzie Borden, and Orphée, just off the top of my head, and there are lots of others — but ultimately, it’s not about numbers. To everything she does, Caroline Worra brings clarity: she lets nothing stand between her and her audience, spinning her stories with irresistible immediacy of expression. No matter how difficult or surprising the music, her message comes across.

With Opera Saratoga this summer, Worra will sing three roles in another world premiere, Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk, an adaptation of Iraqi War veteran Brian Castner’s coming-home memoir. From workshops and sing-throughs to opening night, Worra has been involved in The Long Walk at every step: in fact, “The entire cast has stayed with the project for two years, which is incredible,” she says. “We generally don’t get this kind of luxury.”

The Long Walk’s cast also includes Daniel Belcher, Heather Johnson, Donita Volkwijn, David Blalock, Javier Abreu, and Justin Hopkins. Two years ago, the company assembled to work through about half the opera, with only piano and an electric guitar for accompaniment. “The next year, it was a little bit longer,” Worra says, “and this past March, we read it again with the full orchestration. To be with a piece for this long, in these crucial stages of existence, has been a treat for all of us.”

As Older Alyce in Glory Denied
(with Sydney Mancasola as Younger Alyce in background).
Photo by Ellen Appel, courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Opera isn’t Broadway, and until recently workshopping has been a rare practice, but it’s an important part of the process for Lawrence Edelson and American Lyric Theater, who commissioned The Long Walk. “I’ve been a part of so many world premieres,” Worra says, “and quite often you get to the venue, and the score is completely published, and it is what it is. And quite often, once you’re into the production space, it’s too late for cuts and edits.” But for The Long Walk, even now that rehearsals have begun, composer Beck, his librettist, Stephanie Fleischmann; stage director David Schweizer, and conductor Steven Osgood “have continued to work together to make sure they are streamlining the piece and creating the correct amount of drama and the pulse for the crucial moments and the drive to the end.”

Perhaps needless to say, singers who can cope with this kind of ongoing editorial work — which may entail learning, un-learning, and re-learning words and music even as opening night approaches — must possess quick minds, first-rate musicianship, and generous, collaborative spirits. Caroline Worra began developing these qualities when she was still an undergraduate, earning her bachelor’s degree in piano. “I enjoy the technical aspect of being able to sing through and learn music that sometimes is almost more instrumental in nature,” as contemporary scores often are, she says. “I’ve found the challenge of taking things that maybe are written in a difficult manner and trying to make it just seem and feel and look and sound natural.”

The themes of Worra’s musical life came together when the piano major began to study voice with Costanza Cuccaro. Cuccaro’s husband, Edwin Penhorwood, is a composer who sometimes played for Worra’s lessons. Penhorwood has written extensively for his wife, and often shared his new work with her pupil. “It was great to be around a composer who was composing brand-new things all the time,” Worra says. “I loved that right away. [Composers] are creating new things, and it’s exciting to me.”

When she first heard Cuccaro sing, “I felt there was something so natural and clear about the way that she sang and the way that she communicated,” Worra says. “That’s what really inspired me to become a singer.” Today, Worra still aims to uphold her teacher’s “natural” expression, even in challenging vocal lines. “I think that’s actually what a lot of composers are trying to do, to write things that will sound natural,” she says. And the singing technique also informs Worra’s acting, because it “really lends itself to a sort of clarity of intent on the stage. This is what helps a lot of some of these roles that I get to do, to be able to rely on that technique that she taught me, so that I can have a very natural acting style.”

Even when she sings 19th-century opera,
it’s sometimes a world premiere:
As Gertrude in Faccio’s Amleto
with Opera Southwest, 2014.

When Cuccaro and Penhorwood left the University of Missouri for Indiana University, Worra followed them there, earning a doctorate in vocal performance, “to learn this craft, to just stay in a protected environment as long as I could,” she says, and she still studies with Cuccaro whenever she can. While in Bloomington, Worra minored in conducting. That study has given her rare insight into the conductor’s job, and as a result, “I enjoy that communication between the conductor and the singer,” Worra says. “That’s really crucial in those new works, when you’re creating things. The conductor and the singer are really dependent on each other.”

In The Long Walk, Worra sings three roles: Brian’s sister, in a birthday-party scene that shows the difficulty he’s facing as he adjusts to life at home; an Iraqi woman, “mourning and singing about how our children are dead, and how angry we are” in a “dramatic and terrifying” sequence; and Brian’s psychiatrist, who diagnoses him not with the post-traumatic stress disorder he’d supposed he had, but with “blast-induced traumatic brain injury,” a side-effect of the explosives he detonated as part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit during the war. Receiving this diagnosis “helps him to the next stage of recovery,” Worra says. “If you know what’s wrong with you, you have a little more drive and hope, and you can try to recover into as much of a normal life as you can possibly have.”

By now, singing new music is normal life for Caroline Worra — The Long Walk isn’t even the first time she’s gotten to meet the real-life people she’s singing about. “I enjoy every second of getting to work on these new pieces,” she says. “I know how lucky we are to be able to do world premieres. Creating things that nobody has ever seen before is one of my absolute favorite things to get to do.”

Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk
Opera Saratoga

at the Spa Little Theater in Spa State Park
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 10 (world premiere) and 25 at 7:30 pm
July 13 and 17 at 2:00 pm
For more information and tickets, click here.

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