Opera addressing questions of disability, technology being developed with Lyric Theatre’s help

Composer Paola Prestini works with students from the Lyric Theatre program at the University of Illinois. Lyric Theatre hosted a workshop for a new opera, “Sensorium Ex,” that explores questions of disability, technology and communication. The students are Olivia Skaff, Mike McAndrew and Michaela Wright.

Photo by Jill Steinberg

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new opera exploring questions of disability, technology and communication is being created with the help of the Lyric Theatre program at the University of Illinois. “Sensorium Ex” is in the early stages of development, including a weeklong workshop this past week at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

The full-length opera, co-commissioned by the Atlanta Opera and Beth Morrison Projects, is an original work with a female composer and a female librettist – a rare occurrence, said librettist Brenda Shaughnessy.

“The deep question of the opera is, what does it mean to be human? If a person can’t communicate his wishes and has no agency, is that a fully human life?” Shaughnessy said.

The opera tells the story of a mother and her profoundly disabled son whose genetic material is needed by a corporation trying to make a robot that replicates human life. They want to incorporate disabilities into the prototype, Shaughnessy said, because “when people create artificial intelligence, they create perfection – and that is what makes it nonhuman.”

Poet Brenda Shaughnessy wrote the libretto for the new opera “Sensorium Ex.” One of the main characters, a profoundly disabled child, is modeled after Shaughnessy’s son.

Photo by Jill Steinberg

The fictional child is modeled after Shaughnessy’s 12-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal.

“Loving him through his lifelong struggle to express himself without using words is what this piece is built around,” Shaughnessy said. “We’re creating a story in which there is no happy ending, no simple easy answer. The whole point is to keep it as complex and nuanced as possible.”

The workshop with Lyric Theatre is the first for the opera with instruments and singers. Producer Beth Morrison has a longstanding relationship with both Lyric Theatre and Krannert Center. Lyric Theatre has held workshops for several of her projects in the past, and Krannert Center has presented several of her productions, most recently “HOME” in September.

This week, students sang the parts during the workshop, and the professionals involved with “Sensorium Ex” spoke to music and Lyric Theatre classes. They also talked to local disability activists and consulted with the Illinois eDream Institute, which promotes the use of digital technologies in the arts.

The focus of the workshop at Krannert Center has been on the music and soundscape for the first 25 minutes of the piece, when the mother and son are introduced.

“We’re just at the beginning of trying to understand how to best represent disability onstage, with a main character who is nonverbal and who nevertheless must communicate the main parts of the plot and must drive the story,” Shaughnessy said.

The challenges for composer Paola Prestini are coming up with a language to represent the nonverbal child as well as the robot character in the opera. That language “must dignify one of the central ideas – how do we learn about how other people communicate, when verbal communication is not the only option,” Prestini said.

“It’s exciting to be learning alongside Brenda and being able to put to life some of her lived experience onstage,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity and a huge honor.”

For the child, movement might be part of his method of communication, Prestini said. Another aspect is creating sound to represent his speech that makes it clear that the other characters understand him, although the audience does not.

“Anybody who has parented a disabled kid has done this translation work,” Shaughnessy said.

Prestini worked with T.J. Sapp, a doctoral student in music composition, to create the voice for the robot character. Sapp manipulated a prerecorded voice sample to make it glitch and sound mechanical. He also created a vocal effect that combined the pitch of a set of voices to use for an identity that is a compilation of characters.

At the end of the opera, the child is able to describe an escape route, although ultimately no one is able to escape the corporation. “His triumph is in his ability to make his desires known,” Shaughnessy said.

She said the goal is to leave the audience with a different sense of what disability is in their own lives and the lives of others.

“We want to make sure this feels inclusive and loving and respectful of the population we’re bringing to the stage,” Shaughnessy said. “We want people who are disabled and who love and care for disabled folks, especially kids, to say, ‘They get it.’ It’s important to see it onstage.”

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