Composer Paola Prestini’s new opera Sensorium Ex to be workshopped at Artscape’s ArtsAbility Festival.

Composer Paola Prestini’s new opera Sensorium Ex to be workshopped at Artscape’s ArtsAbility Festival, South Africa’s premier disability-led inclusive arts festival, Nov 29 – Dec 3

The workshop focuses on the audition process for the nonverbal opera, Sensorium Ex, which aims to build a more inclusive approach to Opera, placing access and inclusion at the center of casting and artistic development. This ongoing process and platform unites community impact, music, science and film through an operatic lens. International partners will gather in Africa to contribute to the ideation of how the arts play an empowering role to enhance the dignity and confidence of persons with disabilities.

In addition to a casting call for the lead role of Kitsune and members of the chorus, the workshop (led by choreographer and associate director Jerron Herman, and composer  Paola Prestini) will present a culminating moment in the opera, where the lead nonverbal character, Kitsune, explores his sense of voice through music and movement.

For immediate releaseSensorium Ex, a new opera in development by composer Paola Prestini, will be workshopped with Artscape Theater in Cape Town, South Africa on November 17 – December 2. The workshop will be part of the ArtsAbility Festival, South Africa’s premier disability-led inclusive arts festival, held annually since 2015 in Cape Town. In addition to a casting call for the lead role of Kitsune and the opera’s chorus, the Festival workshop will  also present a culminating moment in the opera, where Kitsune explores his sense of voice through music and movement, and – through his improvisational interactions with the Chorus – makes a key decision which guides the finale of the story.

The workshop aims to build a more inclusive approach to Opera, placing access and inclusion at the center of casting and artistic development, and changing how disabled people are involved in the creative process. As the only theater in the world with an associated company which deals with people of mixed ability, Artscape is uniquely positioned to facilitate this inclusive casting and development process. The Opera Team will work with Artscape Theater to identify a small group of performers who might be well-suited for the leading role of Kitsune, as well as the opera’s Chorus and then coordinate a small-scale casting process online and in-person.

Sensorium Ex is an opera for soloists, choir, chamber orchestra and electronics – exploring the nature of voice beyond language, what it means to be truly human, and how we find our sense of voice through our relationships with family, community and culture. The opera is centered around Kitsune – a non-verbal, child with a disability – his relationship with his mother Mem, and their journey in exploring their own forms of expression, listening, and exchange beyond the conventions of spoken language. The opera is grounded in the embodied wisdom of librettist Brenda Shaughnessy. She has created the libretto from her own experiences as a mother to her son Cal, who lives with cerebral palsy and is also non-verbal.

Says composer and Artistic Director Paola Prestini: “Jerron Herman, myself and our producers are so excited to be partnering with the Artscape Theater and the ArtsAbility Festival to workshop a key scene of our opera, Sensorium Ex, currently in development. Artscape provides an exciting forum for our ongoing exploration, as their leader, Marlene LeRoux, has foregrounded disability into the daily practice of art, and understands that different disabilities have different needs, while celebrating the diversity and richness of expression and voice in the community she brings to Sensorium. We feel beyond grateful to have the chance to collaborate and believe Artscape provides a unique and singular forum for this type of work.”

Choreographer and Associate Director Jerron Herman said: “Sensorium is a piece of art and a process that is impacted by the communities and environments with which it partners. This is never more true than with the authentic and dynamic partnership of Artscape Theater in South Africa where the team of Sensorium Ex will have the chance to develop co-liberatory processes for our opera with the South African disability community. We will focus on a crucial scene, but more emphatically understand our approach to welcoming artists into the work through the work in the context of the ArtsAbility Festival. I’m so excited to explore with a space that is this committed to artistry and equity in equal measure. It’s a dream.”

About Paola Prestini

Composer Paola Prestini is a leader in the global new music scene. She has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, and scientists in large-scale multimedia works that explore themes ranging from the cosmos to the environment. She created the largest communal VR opera with The Hubble Cantata, was part of the New York Philharmonic’s legendary Project 19 initiative, and has written and produced large scale projects like the eco-documentary The Colorado narrated by Mark Rylance (premiered and commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Houston Da Camera Series) and the lauded opera theater work Aging Magician (premiered and commissioned by the Walker Arts Center and the Krannert Center, with performances at ASU, the New Victory Theater and San Diego Opera).  Her compositions have been commissioned and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Barbican Centre, Cannes Film Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Kennedy Center, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Opera, among others.

Throughout her career, Prestini has crossed genres, brought together different disciplines,  and shattered glass ceilings. She was the first woman in the Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative with her grand opera Edward Tulane. Her upcoming chamber opera Sensorium Ex, co-commissioned by The Atlanta Opera and Beth Morrison Projects for the Prototype Festival,  examines the intersection of artificial intelligence and disability, using non-verbal or non-typical patterns of speech to explore the fundamental questions of what it means to have voice, and what it means to be fully and essentially human. Her new opera theater work Old Man and the Sea, with Karmina Šilec and Royce Vavrek, will be premiered by Carolina Performing Arts and Arizona State University. Other upcoming works include two new piano concertos: one for Awadagin Pratt and A Far Cry, and another for Lara Downes with the Louisville Symphony, Oregon Bach Festival, and The Ravinia Festival.

Prestini is the co-founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn-based arts institution and incubator National Sawdust, where she serves in a strategic and vision-based role. Her podcast about artistic leadership and social change, Active Hope, is a collaboration with the Kennedy Center and the Apollo Theater, co-hosted with Kamilah Forbes and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. As part of her commitment to equity for the next generation of artists, she started the Hildegard Competition for emerging female, trans, and non-binary composers, and the Blueprint Fellowship for emerging composers and female mentors with The Juilliard School.  She was a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and a Sundance Institute Film Music Program Fellow, has been in residence at the Park Avenue Armory and MASS MoCA, and is a graduate of the Juilliard School.

About Jerron Herman

Jerron Herman is a disabled dancer and writer who creates works to facilitate welcoming. He has premiered pieces at Danspace Project, Performance Space New York, The Kennedy Center, and The Whitney Museum. Jerron’s most recent work VITRUVIAN premiered live at Abrons Arts Center in May 2022 with a digital release in July 2022. He curated the speaking series Access Check 2.0: Mapping Accessibility for the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation from 2019-2020 and Discourse: Disabled Artists at The Joyce for The Joyce Theater in 2021. Jerron has also served on the Board of Trustees at Dance/USA since 2017, most recently as Vice Chair. His writings on arts and culture have been published in the US and internationally and his play, 3 Bodies, was published in Theater Magazine’s May/June 2022 issue. During the Spring 2022 semester Jerron was the Artist/Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University, facilitating student engagement with Art and Disability. As a model and advocate, Jerron has worked with Chromat, Tommy Hilfiger, Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and Nike. Other accolades include a 2021 Grants to Artists Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and a 2021-2022 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship in Dance from the Jerome Foundation, the 2021 PETRONIO Award and residency as well as a 2020 Disability Futures Fellowship by the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

About Brenda Shaughnessy

Brenda Shaughnessy librettist for Sensorium Ex is the author of five poetry collections, including The Octopus Museum (coming in March 2019 from Knopf); So Much Synth (2016, Copper Canyon Press); Our Andromeda (2012), which was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, The International Griffin Prize, and the PEN Open Book Award.  Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Harpers, The New York Times, The New Yorker, O Magazine, Paris Review, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. Recent collaborative projects include writing a libretto for a Mass commissioned by Trinity Church Wall Street for composer Paola Prestini, and a poem-essay for the exhibition catalog for Toba Khedoori’s solo retrospective show at LACMA.  A 2013 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, she is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark. She lives in Verona NJ with her family.