The Cal State San Bernardino Opera Theatre, in collaboration with the university’s Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art (RAFFMA), will present “Scenes from Why Women Went West” by Pamela Madsen, featuring the Grammy-nominated and winning players of Brightwork newmusic with Stacey Fraser, soprano and CSUSB professor of music.
The performance is free and will be presented at RAFFMA on Thursday, March 9, at 5 p.m.
The work was commissioned by Fraser and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts grant awarded to CSUSB Opera Theatre in 2021. The NEA funding was part of a larger project entitled “New Frontiers: Multimedia Monodramas,” a series of multidisciplinary, multimedia monodramas and arts events focusing on aspects of new frontiers, California, diversity, women and the idea of the West.
“Why Women Went West,” the second work in the series, is a multi-media chamber opera in which two voices – I, Mary (soprano) and Mary by Herself (recorded voice of soprano/spoken voice/electronics) – tell the unfolding narrative of a sole woman protagonist, Mary Hunter Austin, and her journey west.
Twenty-one songs comprise the three-part narrative. With empathy, ritual and passion, they trace Austin’s experiences from her youth in a Midwest small town in the late 19th century to her pioneer days in California, and finally to her wild west days in New Mexico where she eventually confronts death and overcomes the challenges that have plagued her throughout her life.
“Why Women Went West” explores controversies over human rights, water wars and early 20th-century feminist artist communities through the life of Austin. Writer, feminist, conservationist and defender of Native American and Spanish-American rights, Austin’s quest, trauma and journey uncovered dark mysticism in the American Southwest.
Resonating with concerns over the marginalization of indigenous cultures, desecration of women, nature and women’s escape from conventions through their artistic agency, this work reveals the ongoing trauma of women’s quest for autonomy. A complex, problematic story of coming to terms with oneself as a woman in society, “Why Women Went West” chronicles Austin’s escape from persecution to the transformation of white women’s privilege and passion for the preservation of nature, history and indigenous culture.
The three-act, multi-scene, 120-minute multi-media work explores specific times, location and dramatic action in Austin’s life. The historical drama is paired with the simultaneous unfolding of the contemporary multi-media drama of Quintan Ana Wikswo’s texts and video creating a parallel dark shadow drama of the unfolding sonic landscape of the Desert Southwest that is timeless.
In addition to the National Endowment of the Arts award, the work has also received the Opera America Discovery Award, which funds the complete opera’s Lab Production, Workshop, Reading, and working performance for 2022-23.
The first portion of the work with Brightwork premiered in Meng Hall at Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 17, 2022. The third act, SACRED MOUNTAIN, most recently premiered on Feb. 28, 2023, featuring the critically acclaimed HEX Ensemble (SSATTB) with guest soprano Fraser as part of the Cal State Fullerton Annual New Music Festival.
On March 9, Brightwork newmusic and Fraser will present a chamber version of the piece on the CSUSB campus featuring various excerpts from the complete opera. “Scenes from Why Women Went West” is funded in part by the Office of Academic Programs Intellectual Life Fund.