Mabel Dodge Luhan, as operatic vision

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Mabel enthusiasts, opera lovers and even writers are in for a real treat. Nell Shaw Cohen, an award-winning composer and librettist from New York City, has agreed to present a “concert workshop” of the opera she is composing about Mabel Dodge Luhan.

On Friday (Aug. 12), Cohen presents “Bringing Mabel Dodge Luhan to Life Through Opera.” Cohen describes it as a musical performance without theatrical staging. The presentation will be given from 5:30-7 p.m. in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the University of New Mexico’s Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St.

In essence, Cohen will show part of the product and elucidate on the behind-the-scenes process of writing the book and composing the music. “This is a workshop presentation, which is standard practice in the new opera world. I’m still in the process of composing. I will first introduce the project, how I came to the subject matter, where I am in the process. And then I will introduce each scene and the smaller aria pieces,” Cohen said.

The four scenes and three arias explore Mabel Dodge Luhan’s relationships with Maurice Sterne and Tony Lujan. The material is very fresh, having just been composed in recent months. The music has never been rehearsed, performed or sung in public before.

This is a terrific opportunity to catch the rising star of this nascent opera. But Cohen is no untested unknown. She has many credits to her name and is a “Composers & the Voice” fellow with the American Opera Projects. She holds a Master of Music degree (GPA 4.0) from New York University and a Bachelor of Music degree with honors (GPA 3.99) from the New England Conservatory.

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“I have done a Wurlitzer residency as part of composing the opera. I wrote much of the material while I was here,” said Cohen.

While working on a Georgia O’Keeffe opera several years ago, Cohen stayed at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Her interest was piqued. Her first thought was to capture Luhan’s social milieu, but now her project concept has evolved to focus on Luhan’s journey and the drama of her human experience.

“The opera is tentatively titled ‘Mabel’s Call.’ It has dual meaning. It’s her own personal call to come to Taos and reinvent herself – and also her call to action to all the artists and intellectuals,” Cohen said.

She gave The Taos News a listening preview of her aria, “Tony Teaches Me,” which is sung by Mabel in response to the discovery that she had hurt Tony Lujan’s feelings by rejecting a gift from him. An excerpt from the lyrics read: “No one has taught me/what Tony teaches me.” Cohen points out, “That’s a quotation from Mabel’s memoirs.”

Cohen’s networks in the opera field connected her to a trio of outstanding performers. American soprano Shelley Jackson will sing the role of Mabel Dodge Luhan. Jackson is presently performing with the Santa Fe Opera after just completing two years in the International Opera Studio of the Zürich Opera. Tenor André García-Nuthmann sings the role of Maurice Sterne. He has soloed with the Santa Fe Symphony and the New Mexico Philharmonic. Baritone Carlos Archuleta sings the role of Tony Lujan. He has performed with the Santa Fe Opera, New York City Opera and Boston Lyric Opera.

Music director Kristin Ditlow will accompany the performers on piano. She is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico in the Vocal Department. She was the music director in 2016 for the Santa Fe Opera’s newly commissioned work, “UnShakeable.”

In reference to the large and diverse calendar of events surrounding the Mabel Dodge Luhan exhibition (mabeldodgeluhan.org), Juniper Manley, the director of development at the Harwood Museum said, “She has been here all summer immersing herself in Mabel. Her opera should be an interesting interpretation. This is a different vantage point on the many views of Mabel we’ve seen throughout the summer and on the artists she brought here.”

The press announcement perfectly sums it all up: Opera is an art form suited to big ideas, big personalities and big emotions. Taos’ Mabel Dodge Luhan was a larger-than-life character born for the operatic stage.

This program is made possible with support from the Richard B. Siegel Foundation.

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