"Genre-bending" poetry and opera

Aural Compass Projects presents The Greatest Personal Privation

2 minute read
Murrah poses in a portrait, wearing an all black suit against a yellow-bronze gradiant background
Aural Compass Projects worked with countertenor Key’mon Murrah on the project. (Photo courtesy of Aural Compass Projects.)

On Saturday, April 15, The Greatest Personal Privation, Jasmine Barnes’s setting of poems by Tracy K. Smith, will finally receive its world premiere after being delayed due to Covid-19. Countertenor Key’mon Murrah, for whom the work was composed, and pianist Donald Lee III will perform. Smith is a Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate. Barnes, whose commissioners include Washington National Opera, LA Opera, and NY Philharmonic/Juilliard, is the subject of the PBS special Dreamer.

Unconventional dreams

This exciting project was conceived by pianist and vocal coach Michael Lewis. When tasked with programming four collaborative recitals during his graduate studies at Arizona State, Lewis’s attraction to “things off the beaten path” led him to explore lesser-known composers, including some contemporaries. This fascination undergirds Aural Compass Projects, which he founded with help and inspiration from Cincinnati Song Initiative, Sparks and Wiry Cries, Resonant Bodies Festival, Lyric Fest, and his partner, baritone Dicky Dutton.

Lewis met Murrah and Barnes (then a singer whose composing journey was just beginning) at Glimmerglass in 2017. Together, they worked on Castor and Patience by Gregory Spears, with a libretto by Smith. Working with Smith gave Lewis the idea of asking her which of her poems she’d like set to music. Her first choice was “The Greatest Personal Privation,” an “erasure poem” drawn from correspondence between a married couple of enslavers. Smith transformed their words into a five-part reflection on the feelings of the mother and daughter whom the couple had formerly enslaved. Barnes notes that she included “some [slightly] unconventional things in the piece to represent the unconventional life of an enslaved person.”

The composer, a self-described “genre-bender” who loves “challenging what classical music is,” felt that incorporating African rhythms and idioms in this song cycle was “most befitting” to the text. In addition, the program includes Barnes’s Might Call You Art (text by King Weatherspoon), performed by soprano Chabrelle Williams and Bismuth Quartet. The quartet will also perform Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum.”

What, When, Where

The Greatest Personal Privation. Composed by Jasmine Arielle Barnes. Conducted by Aural Compass Projects. $12-$25. Saturday, April 15, 2023 at 7:30pm, at Trinity Center for Urban Life, 2212 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. auralcompassprojects.org.


The facility provides an ADA-compliant chair lift.

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