This year LSWA welcomes Rachel (U-M Creative Writing MFA ’19) to our community as a mentor and guide for our student leaders. She’s a creative writer as well as an opera singer, and her work in opera has been particularly exciting for us as our student leaders get to attend her performance with Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Don Giovanni on Oct. 27. We recently asked her to discuss some of the ways her current operatic work factors into her approach to artistic leadership in our LSWA community.

Q: What do you do for LSWA, and how does it connect with other aspects of your art?

This year I’m proud to serve as the Student Leadership Coordinator for LSWA, though at first I wavered at the concept of myself as some kind of expert on leadership. I’ve been a singer and writer essentially all my life, but those are mainly lonely pursuits, each moment of performance representing hundreds of hours working alone in my office or practice room. But it’s impossible to be an artist without being a leader—the stronger your artistic voice, the more power you hold with your audience.

Onstage with Northwestern University Opera Theater, performing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sir John in Love.

Q: Talk about your experience with opera. 

When I fell in love with opera, somewhere between late high school and early college, I didn’t expect to find it so relevant to my daily life. What I loved were the lush orchestrations themselves, the scenery and costumes themselves, human voices themselves, poetry itself. I can still say that hearing the human voice is the most beautiful part of the whole endeavor and makes the thousands of hours of study and practice feel like no time at all. But this autumn, singing in the chorus for Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is not the first time an opera has kept me awake thinking about how I live my daily life and what changes I want to make in the world.

Backstage with fellow choristers in Don Giovanni

Q: What would you say to a student who didn’t know that much about opera in general, or Don Giovanni in particular? 

Opera is an art form that pushes its creators and performers to their limits. It takes physical strength, years of intensive discipline, and delicate muscle precision, not to mention a lot of intelligence and emotional generosity, to sing even a page of operatic score. The dancers, instrumentalists, choreographers, stage managers, and conductors put an incredible amount of work in as well. All this makes for a presentation that cannot fail to be bold and intentional. Pair that with the story of a powerful man ruining women’s lives left and right, and you have a conundrum. Because through the performance of opera and through its witnessing, we are asked to empathize deeply, to spend a lot of serious time with, and even to hum along with, all the flawed characters involved—that is to say, all the facilitators, instigators, and perpetuators of sexual assault.

I think it’s vital we continue the practice of exploring the psyches and decisions of all these different people. In Don Giovanni, we consider the abandoned woman still in love with her abuser, the poor young girl who likes attention more than anything, the victim ecstatic with revenge fantasies, the wretched servant who’d rather be an enabler than a target, as well as the people who love them but are constantly negotiating between the right choice and the safe choice. It’s also vital we do this exploration with kindness and care.

Q: Final thoughts?

Art is a zone of exploration, but it’s also hard to argue with its power as a vehicle for conviction and persuasion. In this world of instant communication and near-instant consequences, we continually have to navigate how we render our ideas, and how much space we have to explore. It’s hard enough to be honest, tactful, and kind on the operatic stage, with its heavy curtain and solid walls, and even harder in a world where artistic voices abound in a panoply of media and contexts that all slip quite organically into ordinary life. Our LSWA community paints, slams, podcasts, posts, films, fictionalizes, and more, and each one of us must interrogate, every day, our authority as an artist and what in the world we want to do with it.

All photos courtesy of Rachel Ann Girty.