Meet the Artists
Interstate is the story of Olivia and Diane, who shared a childhood in vulnerable, unsafe circumstances before life sent them down different roads. The adult Diane reaches out from her stable life to Olivia, a prostitute in prison for murder. Interstate blends the horror and violence of Olivia’s life with the tenderness of old friendship and the hard questions of accountability. Learn more about Interstate from the work’s co-librettists and co-stars, Kathleen Kelly and Jennifer Cresswell.
MN Opera: What drew you to this project and why did you feel this story was important to tell through opera?
Kathleen Kelly: The project started with us, through conversations we had and research we were doing about how narrow the modes of expression for women can be in classical performance. I wanted to be part of creating a story in which women could be more fully human than they often get to in opera and art song – not necessarily heroines, or nice, or perfectly loving. That led us to talking about the intersection of opera and bad girls. Three of opera’s most popular heroines – Carmen, Butterfly, and Violetta – are sex workers of one kind or another, which is both exploited and prettied up in opera. What would happen if we told that story through an unromantic lens, and what if the story didn’t focus on the heartbroken man who causes the heroine’s death?
Jennifer Cresswell: This project was born out of a desire to collaborate. Kathy and I had been performing together for a few years and had just finished a recital that included Libby Larsen’s “The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes.” That cycle, based on the infamous serial killer during the Chicago World’s Fair in the 1890s, was originally written for baritone, and we were the first female duo to perform it. We were curious about how an audience would react to a woman playing a serial killer and were also eager to shift the dynamic of the traditional singer/pianist relationship on stage. Pianists usually have to express drama without words. We wanted to up the level of dramatic collaboration and see what possibilities were there. We discovered that, between the two of us, we had written or adapted nearly a dozen opera libretti. Our working relationship is such that it felt natural and comfortable to write something together.
The story inspired by Aileen Wuornos and Dawn Botkins was a natural fit. We’re two women from the Midwest, and Aileen and Dawn grew up in Troy, Michigan. The characters we created in INTERSTATE, Olivia and Diane, pay tribute to many of the charms of the region, from landmarks to snacks. As a soprano, and as a woman, this story is an extremely important one for me to tell. Opera has such a history with glamorizing prostitution and human trafficking. Male librettists gave some of our favorite opera heroines words about freedom, while the tenors and baritones around them sang of their beauty and tempting ways. Those women all end up dead at the end of the show, while the men are left to sing about how much they loved them. The beautiful music of Puccini or Verdi makes it easy to forget just how horrific life could be for these women, who often started out as trafficking victims when they were young girls. They never had a chance. In the early 1990s, Aileen Wuornos made international headlines when she was arrested for murdering some of her clients. She was a prostitute living a life of “freedom” on the outskirts of society, but she was not considered glamorous. Her life of trauma went ignored by society until a series of men started turning up dead in the area where she worked off of the highways. That is what made people take notice of her; men were dying.
MN Opera: What are three words you would use to describe your character?
Kathleen Kelly: Diane is comfortable, bored, and remorseful.
Jennifer Cresswell: Resourceful, imbalanced, heartbroken.
MN Opera: What is it like performing in a work you’ve written the libretto for? Is it more enjoyable? More challenging?
Kathleen Kelly: It’s a delight and a surprise to hear your words set to music. A great composer like Kamala hears things that I didn’t hear in my own words. And our sensitive director, Tonya, came into the process seeing Diane in some ways that were very different from how I saw her. It’s challenging and rewarding to let go of what you think you know, even what you think you know about your own ideas!
Jennifer Cresswell: First, it’s such an enormous gift to be able to co-write and co-star with someone; there is a real level of artistic trust that makes you feel invincible and capable of anything. This might sound really strange, but when I’m performing this piece, it’s easy to forget that I helped write it (though I will say it’s way easier to remember the words). Kamala did such an amazing job setting the text that we wrote. Once a composer adds their music, the words take on a whole new shape. By the time we filmed in July, I was in full soprano mode and just wanted to tell the story and follow the guidance of Tonya, the director of this film.
MN Opera: What were some of the joys and challenges of producing a digital opera? How was the experience overall compared to traditional live performance?
Kathleen Kelly: The biggest challenge for me was the sound, as our engineer Darryl sought the way to capture Jenny’s singing, my speaking, and my piano playing. Eventually, the instrument I used, a Yamaha hybrid grand, was recorded directly to audio and so had to be at a very low level, which was super disconcerting. I had to just accept less volume in the moment, and trust the feeling of my physical playing for dynamic contrast.
It was also challenging to mentally adjust to the possibility of multiple takes. That’s the hardest thing about recording of any kind. It’s harder to find the flow of performance, and it’s harder to get a sense of how you’re actually doing!
Something that was surprisingly not hard: Jenny and I were separated by a wall for the entire filming, but our musical ensemble is still pretty great. The experience of this piece was enhanced by being separated. The story of two people trying to find their way back to each other, who ultimately can’t – it was intense to tell that with a literal wall between me and my partner.
Jennifer Cresswell: The time we spent filming this opera was absolute joy; easily one of my favorite work weeks of my life. I joked that being on set was like being in a strange and tiny Vegas, because I never had any idea what time of day it was or what the weather was like outside. I don’t have many costume changes, and most of my action in the opera takes place in a prison cell, so I really just made the most of it. The biggest difference in comparison to a live performance is the amount of time you spend in a taxing state. This opera deals with some heavy topics. Instead of a quick five minutes on stage to deliver a particularly vulnerable aria, you might need to spend several hours so that everything, from the lighting, to the sound, to the collaboration, to your own music making is as good as it can be. A day or two after, the reality of the emotional cost of this piece set in and I had to take some extra care. Thankfully, this production team provided a very safe and supportive environment.
MNOp: What’s one thing you’d like audiences to know before watching Interstate?
Kathleen Kelly: Our society and culture makes it hard for so many people to seek and get help for domestic and sexual abuse. It’s also harder and harder for individuals to survive economically. Liv and Di try to hang in there together, but life makes it very difficult – and neither of these women are superheroes. Most of us aren’t. I hope people talk about why they judge these characters, or why they feel sympathy for them.
Jennifer Cresswell: Women and their real stories deserve to be seen and heard as they tell them, and in their own voices. Opera’s obsession with prostitution and the power dynamics between women, their sexuality, and men cannot be reserved for the young, thin and glamorous. Times are changing. I hope everyone joins us for this journey and takes a trip down the INTERSTATE.
Don’t miss MN Opera’s Interstate, streaming October 9–23, 2021!