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Musicians to come together for unique week of collaboration during Sac State’s Operation Opera

Assistant Professor of Music Shuying Li, standing center, accepts congratulations following a performance of her opera “When the Purple Mountains Burn” at Gonzaga University in June 2022. The piece will again be performed during Operation Opera, an 11-day event at Sac State that Li has organized. (Photo courtesy Shuying Li)

On June 10, Sacramento State music student A. C. Sullivan will sit inside Capistrano Hall and hear the world premiere of their composition, “Song of Oblivion,” dedicated to the victims and survivors of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

“I’m probably going to cry,” said Sullivan, a violinist who recently changed their concentration to Music Theory and Composition. It will be the first time they have ever had one of their works performed by others. “I poured my heart and soul into it.”

Sullivan is one of 36 individuals – including 12 Sac State students – who will participate in Operation Opera, an innovative event that will bring composers, vocalists, and instrumentalists to campus for several days of collaboration, learning, and performance.

Operation Opera, which kicks off June 2, is a partnership between Sac State’s School of Music and the Four Corners Ensemble, and includes concerts and other events open to the public.

“We usually spend a lot of time also doing research, trying to know what that composer wants in order to perform. And this is a huge opportunity to collaborate, to have the composer there and know what they want.” -- Sofía Roca, Music Education major 

The goal, said Operation Opera founder Shuying Li, a Sac State assistant professor of Music, is to break down the walls between musicians from different disciplines, provide those musicians a venue for their work, and make world-class classical music more accessible to the community.

“Opera is a kind of a special existence in contemporary classical music,” said Li, who also is the founder of the Four Corners Ensemble. “Mostly, we have those really big opera houses and companies, because it's a very costly thing to put on opera productions. So, we wanted to … (promote) smaller-scale operas and operas by emerging composers who do not have the chance to have their operas being put on the full productions.”

Li began Operation Opera in 2018 at the University of Michigan, where she earned her master’s degree and doctorate. Following a break due to the pandemic, the second was in 2022 at Gonzaga University, where she was on the faculty.

When Li came to Sacramento State in the fall of 2022, she brought Operation Opera with her. Participants include students and faculty from Sac State and other local universities, such as UC Davis, as well as musicians from across the country.

During nearly two weeks of workshops, rehearsals, master classes, and lectures, participants will work together on operas and “art songs,” which are poems or other pieces of literature set to classical music.

Composers will have an opportunity to be in the room as vocalists and pianists learn and rehearse the pieces they have written, and the musicians will be able to hear directly from the composers about their inspiration and intention.

The week will include four public concerts: two performances of pre-existing operas, a concert featuring the premieres of 12 art songs, and a closing concert, during which five “chamber operas” – smaller-scale works – will receive their own premieres.

For participating Sac State students, the week is an opportunity to work with and learn from leading professional and semi-professional musicians. Some, like Sullivan, are composers who will get to hear their work performed for the first time. Others are pianists or vocalists, such as senior Music Education major Sofía Roca.

“We spend most of our time practicing, doing the best we can in … a small practice room where no one can hear us,” Roca said. “We usually spend a lot of time also doing research, trying to know what that composer wants in order to perform. And this is a huge opportunity to collaborate, to have the composer there and know what they want.”

Roca will sing two of the art songs that will be performed on June 10, collaborating with the composers on techniques such as singing through gritted teeth and changing the tone quality mid-note.

“There's amazing professionals that are going to be coming for the event, and also I'm very excited for the lectures and the master classes,” Roca said. “I want to learn as much as I can and enjoy the event, because I know it’s going to be great.”

Roca, Sullivan and senior Vocal Performance major Sophia Silvers have spent recent months as administrative staff for Operation Opera, helping plan and market the event. Sac State students also received a discount on the fee to participate in Operation Opera.

Students get something highly practical and valuable as well, said Robin Fisher, a Sac State professor of Music who is serving as Operation Opera’s vocal director.

“They get a line on their resume,” Fisher said. “They get to say, ‘I sang the role of Penny in the chamber opera Citizen Penny. I got to sing the title role.’ OK, so the opera is 12 minutes long, but you don't need to tell them that. And they finish the program, in some cases with excerpts that they can sing as arias at audition.”

Sac State Associate Professor of Music Scott Perkins will serve as Operation Opera’s composition director, and several other faculty members will participate as instructors, composers, instrumentalists, and lecturers.

Li hopes Operation Opera will be a transformative experience not just for students, but also for the community.

“This is something that's missing in the city of Sacramento, new contemporary opera,” she said. “We see this as an opportunity to strengthen the bond between the University and the community, celebrating the power of music and storytelling together.”

For more information, including a schedule of events, visit the Operation Opera website.

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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