“I’ve always felt like I have a compositional voice...something to say that isn’t there.”
That voice started before she was even in grade school, when Elizabeth Gartman remembers sitting at the piano and writing songs to entertain her family. She may not have known she was composing at the time, but her love of creating music followed her as she grew up and throughout high school when she took an independent study that allowed her to learn about compositional software and compose works for her high school choir.
When Gartman came to the School of Music at UIUC she originally started as strictly a voice major but missed having the opportunity to compose. Faculty member Erin Ghee took Gartman under her wing and helped her put together a composition portfolio that allowed her to be admitted to the composition program, in addition to her voice performance degree, starting in the spring semester of her freshman year.
In addition to it being her own primary instrument, Gartman thinks there is something really special about writing for the voice. “There is so much expression that is so specific to the voice and also incorporates the element of theatre that you can’t get out of other instruments.” When librettist Susan Bywaters approached Gartman in a coffee shop about collaborating on an opera, she jumped at the chance.
The two quickly started working together with Bywater’s libretto taken from the life of John Murray Spears. The opera, entitled The New Motive Power refers to the machine John Murray Spear aspired to build in the 1850’s that he believed would be our new messiah and could connect the world with invisible wires. The opera tells the story of John Murray’s inspiration and creation of the machine. Gartman was immediately drawn to the relevancy of the story and its connections to our relationships to technology and religion today.
Gartman says her and Bywaters are equal collaborators in the process, but the libretto always comes first. Currently, Gartman is composing the music for Act II while Bywaters continues on writing the libretto for Act III. “Composing for opera is totally different than composing for anything else,” Gartman says. “You can’t just write pretty music, you have to write music that is true to each character and what they want.”
Elizabeth credits both the composition faculty and Lyric Theatre @ Illinois faculty in helping her to find her compositional voice and giving students opportunity to explore and develop new work. Last year, Elizabeth was involved in a workshop performance with LTI in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects of Prism, which went on this year to be performed at Prototype Festival and LA Opera. “The faculty here have so much experience with new works and I feel so fortunate to be able to develop something with the faculty guidance of professors like Dr. Davis, Dr. Gunn, and Dr. Tharp.”
In the Opera Scenes workshop performance of Act II in the spring, which will feature LTI students, Elizabeth is hoping for an informative experience that will help the duo to move forward with the goal of a fully staged and fully orchestrated performance in 2020. “This experience is all about receiving feedback and how we can make it a more effective story.”
We are so proud of the work that Elizabeth has done here at Lyric Theatre and the University of Illinois and are excited to be continuing our support and promotion of new works with one that was developed right at home! Mark your calendars to see Act II of The New Motive Power performed by the Opera Scenes class on May 1 at 7:30pm in the Tryon Festival Theatre, and visit the link below to hear a sample of The New Motive Power and Elizabeth’s other compositions:
For many music students, a week full of classes, rehearsals, and time in the practice room is enough for the great college balancing act. Now add traveling to New York City and premiering two brand new musicals in one semester. For some it’d be too much, but for 19-year old sophomore Lyric Theatre major Sophia Byrd, it’s about more than just another chance to perform. “I want to use my artistic platform for a purpose.”
Sophia found her love of music singing in the Chicago Children’s Choir. While college brought her to Urbana-Champaign, her connections with the Children’s Choir have continued to provide opportunity. One of those opportunities was this past October, when Sophia traveled to New York City to perform a brand new musical.
Place, written by USC composition professor Ted Hearne, features a six person cast and tells the story of gentrification and displacement in Chicago. While the role Sophia performed was originally written for Allison Sims (a UIUC alum herself), scheduling conflicts for the New York production found Sophia bumped up from understudy to leading lady.
Fully produced by Beth Morrison Projects and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Place features just about every musical element a singer could ever run into all in one piece. “It has everything. Classical, atonal, post-tonal, contemporary. Each number was a different genre,” Byrd said, sighting her combined jazz and classical training as instrumental in helping her learn the piece.
When asked what experiences as a part of Lyric Theatre were most helpful during her process, Byrd also immediately sighted faculty members. “I could not have done this without Sarah Wigley. She helped me with vocal technique, all the way up to the day of the performance. She’s completely changed the way I think about singing.”
Sophia initially came to UIUC to major in jazz vocal performance for the opportunity to write her own music. However, her involvement with projects like Place has found her passions drifting elsewhere. “I’ve realized that performing someone else’s words gives you so much more freedom to actually focus on bringing a message to life, which is so different from actual composition.”
This month finds Sophia back in New York City premiering The Good Swimmer through the BAM New Wave Festival. While the end of the semester brings more tests, final projects, and deadlines than usual, it’s not stopping Sophia from being involved in projects she’s passionate about. From one show onto another, and we can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.