Noteflight is the Vehicle for a Brand-New Opera

Anice Thigpen, a career biochemist, fell in love with opera and set out to compose a new opera about the biblical story of Lot’s wife. Thigpen used Noteflight to compose the music, and her Noteflight Learn site became the center of a community of singers, arrangers, and other collaborators who worked together to bring her opera to life. Thigpen’s brand-new opera, The Woman of Salt, was premiered in Eugene Oregon in June 2017. We sat down with her back in April to learn the full story behind how she came to create this incredible project.

Tell us about your personal and musical background.

If I had to give music one word: gift. When I was a child, my aunt gave us an old upright piano. That was the first crumb in a breadcrumb trail that has led me through a career in science to where I am now, a composer of the opera The Woman of Salt.

The next breadcrumb came when a classically trained musician returned to my hometown to take care of an aging relative. This teacher, Martha Fay White, lived within walking distance and became a very important influence, the perfect teacher. I got good training in music theory — nothing extravagant — I, IV, V… but having those musical “legos” early on was vital.

The next crumb in my musical trail came when an elderly woman in my hometown, Jane Hardy, was downsizing from her big house to apartment, and needed to get rid of her piano. I got an “audition” to play for her by ear, and she gave me the piano. That piano became my musical “spaceship” — a vehicle for improvisation. And that led me toward composing: my compositional process was to sit at the piano and play via stream of consciousness.

But all that was not to be my main career path. I got my Ph.D. in biochemistry, and worked primarily in research — cancer and diabetes — before moving to Eugene about twelve years ago where I began teaching as well.

There are at least two ways being a scientist worked for me. First, science is nice place to hang out if feelings are a hazardous area of one’s life: the world of thinking and ‘pure reason’ is a safe place. And developing a scientific way of thinking has also given me unique access to artistic ways of thinking.

So finally all of those musical breadcrumbs led to the loaf: Eugene, Oregon. When I moved here, I found myself living across the street from Laura Decher Wayte, an opera singer, and her husband, Larry Wayte. Larry has a masters in music composition and a PhD. in musicology, and he agreed to be my composition teacher. He has worked with me for over four years in the scoring of The Woman of Salt. He became and remains the next truly inspired and inspirational teacher in my life. His wife Laura refers to him as the “doula” for the opera, the birth mother. Without Larry, I believe The Woman of Salt would have lived in me as psychic noise and never found its way to a score on the musical staves of Noteflight.

A lot of great music happens in Eugene as well. Laura Wayte invited me to John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, in which she performed as Madam Mao. I found Adams’ music interesting, full of harmonies and textures that sparked my imagination. I could see and hear a large expanse of unexplored musical space in English-speaking opera. I was still improvising a lot as my primary musical creative outlet, and I started to think “I should get my music out of my head and into scores.”

On one of my first attempts to write down my musical ideas for The Woman of Salt, I showed Larry two measures of music (not properly notated) and told him, “I think this is the beginning of an opera.” And the great thing was that he didn’t say “Anice, this is not how composers start.” He just told me to keep going, and we worked for about a year or more using pencil and manuscript paper. I still I always start on paper at the piano — that’s my calisthenics, that’s how I become a better composer.

How did you discover Noteflight, and how it has affected your musical life?

Before long, Larry suggested that I get notation software. We looked at Sibelius and Finale, but I was daunted by their complexity, and the price tags. Larry suggested Noteflight, and right away, stepping into Noteflight was like getting in an airplane, when you’ve been on a bicycle. It moved me up in terms of capacity, and the playback function helps me experience what I think others will experience. Noteflight opens a door or fissure to invite people to access their compositional talent. I became a much better musician because of Noteflight.

We want to hear more about that, but first tell us about your opera!

This new opera, The Woman of Salt, which will be premiered June 23, 2017, tells the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife. Sodom & Gomorrah was one of the Old Testament’s “do-overs”: God destroyed everyone except Lot’s family. As they left the city, his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. In my Protestant tradition, she is maligned as weak and evil, but this opera addresses that story in a new way. She tells us about why she chose to look back.

So how did it start? Like all of us, I’ve experienced trauma. And it began to heal about four years ago when I began hearing The Woman of Salt. The pain of events in one’s life gets repressed, and for reasons I can’t express, writing this opera about the woman from Genesis became my healing vehicle.

I truly “heard” the opera: I felt like I was transcribing the words and music, not composing it. Then as I continued, I gradually stopped feeling like a scribe, a passive role, and began to feel the more active role of a composer. Imagine two circles in space, not touching: during those four years they began to overlap, and by the time I was finished, they were fully superimposed. Four years into it, I said “we’re done.”

What drew you to opera?

One thing I love about opera is how it tells stories and connects to archetypal energies, which is where trauma and its antidotes live, in all of us. When the transforming energy of music connects with storytelling and theater, we discover the healing power of opera.

I’m really still an opera novice. When I first “got” this opera, I had only heard about three operas. But living across the street from an opera singer opened up the world of opera. It is such a powerful way to tell the stories of human experience — by the time you’re my age, you’re carrying at least ten operas around!

I deeply believe that every human is creative, and every human is musical. Opera is a medium that is available to all of us, in the service of our innate creativity and musicality. If you hear music, if you hum a tune or improvise on your instrument a bit, then you are a composer.

Tell us more about your compositional process

I usually start by improvising at the piano and recording myself with my iPhone – that’s the easy part. Then there’s the head-banging part, trying not to just transcribe the sound into notation, but the emotion itself.

Starting with paper, I add a lot of notations only I understand — arrows indicating the pitch should go up or down, places to enter chord symbols, etc. Then from there I get it into Noteflight. I then go through successive iterations of Noteflight, paper, piano until the finished score lives in Noteflight. I am not fast.

Weekly lessons with Larry created an accountability system and helped me establish and strive toward goals. As we listened and reviewed my scores on Noteflight, he made suggestions and asked questions. Most often, he said, “You need more music.” Though Larry is a very patient and kind teacher, he has high standards. I tried to show up with a body of work to present, so it kept me churning out new material.

My lessons and the processes of composing and staging this opera and have for me really debunked the theory of individual genius. As social creatures, humans tend to be most productive in a setting of cooperativity. During the writing, Larry and I worked as a team of two; now in the staging process, we are working as a team of thirty. Though composing was much more solitary, the presence of a team greatly improved the quality of the work and help me get it done.

And I can’t imagine having completed the opera without Noteflight.

What aspects of Noteflight do you find especially useful?

The user-friendly interface, ease of learning, versatility and capacities of Noteflight made it an ideal e-composition program for me. In addition, I have enjoyed wonderful technical support as a user, and I have confidence in the archiving and storage of the scores. I am definitely a cheerleader for Noteflight!

And using a Noteflight Learn site has been very useful — really it’s the basis for our opera company. The online sharing capacities have allowed me to work easily with a professionally trained young musician on the piano reductions. I worked with two people in the chamber orchestra using Noteflight to collaborative and create an arrangement of an aria for piano, cello and soprano. We have used Noteflight as a recruiting tool for our staging director, choral master, conductor, set designer and many of the lead singers. Recruiting musicians to perform new music is complicated because they don’t have an historical reference point. We have managed to attract and retain a very skilled and talented team because I could share the scores on Noteflight with them and enable them to make an informed choice about accepting a role.

For those on our team who are mainly “ear musicians,” Noteflight lets me accommodate how they like to learn scores. Many of our musicians are more interested in the visual scores and prefer exporting the scores as PDF files. Again, the versatility of Noteflight, combined with strong technical support, lets many types of musicians access and learn the music in a variety of ways.

A wonderful thing is how some people who have become involved in The Woman of Salt realize they want to compose. Our pianist, Nathalie Fortin, will likely use Noteflight as a composer in the future. After our program in February, a member of the audience told me that he too hears music. I referred him to Noteflight as a gateway for getting those sounds into a score.

Tell us about upcoming plans and events for The Woman of Salt

We have already had three workshopping events for The Woman of Salt. In October, we held a program and concert where I told the story of how I “got” the opera. In February, we worked with Lane Arts Council and two other local opera composers to explore the power and universal messages of opera. On April 15th, we were at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance for an evening about healing from trauma through creative work. Music from two operas, including The Woman of Salt, was performed. What we’re trying to do in workshops is to deliver the message that the music serves an audience and that opera can be and should be for everyone.

The full premiere of Woman of Salt will be June 23, with additional stagings along the west coast after that.

Learn more about the project.

We would love to hear some samples from the opera!

What are your musical plans and hopes for the future?

I would like to spend more time learning the fundamentals of composition. As a less arduous project, I would like to compose some jazz pieces for my daughter Paige Carpenter. She has a beautiful lyric soprano voice and will be performing as a main character in The Woman of Salt. There are other musical theatre pieces I want to do. First in that queue is story about memory. The main character lives in an assisted living center. Her mind is being plundered by dementia. We have access on stage to her memories, so the stage becomes populated with the stories. In a repressed state, memories are in shadow, then they are revealed. I’m not sure if it might be jazzy art songs.

Our long-term vision is to have Eugene be an important site for new opera.