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Strange Songfellows

By marrying the contradictory, Linda Lister shakes up the opera scene.

Arts & Culture  |  Feb 7, 2017  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Linda Lister performs

Linda Lister, associate professor of voice and director of opera, performs at Emergency Arts in Downtown Las Vegas with Sin City Opera. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

Dissonance: inharmonious sound, an unresolved chord, a disagreement or incongruity. In most cases, it’s the exact opposite of what a musician hopes to achieve.

That’s not the case for Linda Lister. The opera singer, choreographer, composer, producer, director, and UNLV associate professor of voice actively creates discord by pairing the seemingly incongruent together. Through this discord, she aims to disrupt how we think about opera, education, and the arts in general.

Take, for instance, one of her more recent works, an opera based on the idea of Lady Gaga and Madonna “diva-fighting” — complete with meat dress — that Lister set to Mozart. Or her version of La bohème set in modern-day, hipster Brooklyn. Or the juxtaposition of two very different operas — Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna — that had mostly just nuns (yes, nuns) in common, and for which Lister garnered the 2014 American Prize in Directing.   

Pairing Puccini’s famous and emotional one-act opera with, in Lister’s words, a “really bizarre piece” from Hindemith about a nun who perhaps had a sexual awakening … or perhaps is crazy … or perhaps is possessed by the devil … or perhaps is just a wild child who doesn’t belong in a nunnery  is the type of thing that inspires Lister creatively.

“As I’ve progressed as an artist, I look for something that’s really going to impact people — not just a pretty song,” Lister says. “With opera, you’ve hopefully been true to what the composer or librettist wants, but then you’ve got to bring something new to it, something different. That pairing was the most out there I’d gone with a production, and it took these singers going to the edge, to that weird place, for it to work.”

For audiences, she admits, such performances can be a bit unsettling.

“By pairing two very different works together, people are hopefully thinking critically about how they interrelate, compare, and contrast — (these) different composers from different time periods, backgrounds, and languages,” Lister says. “Some of them may not like the newer work. That’s fine. They can be challenged by it.”

When Lister chooses music for her students to perform, she considers their unique talents and selects pieces that highlight their strengths but also teach them something. If, for instance, a student was assigned a Mozart piece to learn recitativo (recitative delivery, which adopts the rhythms of ordinary speech), Lister might also throw in something verismo (a more impassioned form of expression) to provide a greater breadth of experience.  

Lister says she works to create a “safe space” for her singers so they can reach a place of genuine vulnerability during their performances. “That’s what people really want to see in live performance,” Lister says. “In this day and age, what our industry struggles with is, what’s going to get people out of their houses with the megascreen TV? If you can give them something they can feel live, that gives them goosebumps because you’ve brought them to this emotional precipice, then you’ve given them what they want, something no screen can provide.”

In addition to composing and teaching, Lister sings on a forthcoming CD, Moments of Arrival (Centaur Records), and has co-authored a book with Auburn University colleague Matthew Hoch titled Voice Secrets: 100 Performance Strategies for the Advanced Singer. Drawing from both research and her practical experience, the book provides informative tips on everything from music memorization to reputation management, language learning, and more.

Lister will also be working with a doctoral student, Bonita Bunt, who is translating the operatic version of Hamlet — currently in French — back into Shakespeare’s native tongue. From there the two plan to organize a performance and entire Hamlet festival that includes contributions from UNLV scholars working in English literature, film studies, psychology, and more.

And, of course, Lister’s always got a new odd couple she’d like us to meet. This time, it’s two distinct versions of Orpheus, the lyre player and father of song from Greek mythology. Lister has paired a well-known Orpheus opera, Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Gluck, with a more obscure French version, Les Malheurs d’Orphée by Darius Milhaud, to get us to think about the character — and opera itself — a bit differently.

“Opera is still an important art form,” Lister says. “There tends to be this intimidation with respect to it because of the foreign languages and musical complexity, but it’s not that different from other music forms once you learn more about it. Opera was the popular music of its day, not a museum piece. It was the hot thing. It’s about people living, loving, dying — just like any other drama. They just do it while they’re singing.”