In anticipation of the August 14th preview performance of West Edge Opera’s new opera commission Bulrusher, by Eisa Davis and Nathaniel Stookey, West Edge Opera sat down with Bulrusher dramaturg Leigh Rondon-Davis.
During the pandemic, Leigh has been working alongside West Edge Opera as a curator in the Aperture program and as a consultant to West Edge Opera’s EDI Task Force, in addition to serving on the creative team for Bulrusher.
West Edge sat down to talk with Leigh about what the heck is a dramaturg, how does the dramaturg's work inform new opera, and the road Bulrusher has taken to get to August 14th’s performance. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, grab them here!
WEO: Ok: so for those that don't know, what is a dramaturg? How would you explain a dramaturg to someone brand-new to the new theater/opera-making process? Anything that might surprise people? Anything that is specifically unique to you as a dramaturg?
LRD: I describe a dramaturg as someone who researches and contextualizes the play for the creative team of directors, designers, and performers. I often spend time looking into the world of the play (where/when it's set, how people spoke and what they did during this time period, social and political contexts, and a few fun facts), reading the script for subtext and information about the characters and their journeys… and then turning this all into a robust dramaturgical packet to serve as a resource during the process. Folx might be surprised to learn that I do most of this work asynchronously and before the process even begins, so it can sometimes be a lonely journey for dramaturgs.
For a work in development or in the process of being created, I work with the creators to answer questions, pull information, and offer a sounding board on elements of the libretto that are still in flux. On Bulrusher specifically, I've also been able to serve as a cultural consultant of sorts as a (relatively) young Black queer femme who can speak to the themes, experiences, and cultural nuance for some of the characters and elements of the story.
WEO: For you as the Dramaturg, what is Bulrusher about?
LRD: Bulrusher is about a young Black woman who has been isolated in Boonville, California in 1955... with the arrival of a mysterious- yet-somehow-familiar stranger begins Bulrusher's journey of discovery—of self, heritage, belonging, and first loves.
WEO: Tell us about Bulrusher’s participation with Cincinnati Opera and Opera Fusion back in November. What was it, how did it go, what was your big takeaway?
LRD: It was so exciting! This is the first opera I've ever worked on, so it was a wonderful learning experience about the opera-making process and how much voices can bring to a piece. We had the immense honor of working at Cincinnati Opera with students from University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music for a week of development that culminated in a presentation of the first few scenes of Bulrusher.
As a theater-maker, I'm always thinking about how we tell a story—not just through the words on the page but through the tone, intention, and movement of the performers. Singers can do so much with their voices, and it was beautiful to experience this story come to life with real humans behind it.
WEO: You have a million projects happening at any given time across the Bay Area. You've worked with Shotgun Players, Aurora Theatre Company, Crowded Fire, The Magic Theatre, Oakland Theater Project (am I missing 10 other companies?) With all that free time on your hands...What inspired you to want to work on Eisa Davis and Nathaniel Stookey's Bulrusher?
LRD: I live for stories about young Black womanhood—they're something that have been grossly underrepresented on American stages of all disciplines, so any time that I have the opportunity to bring our stories to life (especially queer stories), I jump at the chance! Bulrusher is a story I see so much of myself in and resonate so Nathaniel Stookey, Composer & Eisa Davis, Librettist
deeply with, so it was impossible to say no when I was asked.
I've also been a HUGE fan of Bulrusher for years after reading the play in college, so I am immensely honored to be a part of adapting Eisa's incredible script to an opera format. (Shotgun Players, where I'm Associate Artistic Director and an Artistic Company Member actually produced Bulrusher as a play in 2007) Because I'm a glorified opera newbie, I was less familiar with Nat's work, but have been so blown away by his brilliance and dedication—I would take any opportunity to collaborate and support his vision again!
WEO: For the preview performance of Bulrusher on August 14th at the Taube Atrium Theater, what are you looking for? What are you hoping comes through in the process, and what in the live preview performance? How does this preview performance affect the world premiere next summer, 2023?
LRD: I'm really curious to hear the new updates. I've been getting updates from Nat and Mark, but it's been challenging to conceptualize as performance. I'm also really interested how the ‘Boontling’ is understood for contemporary audiences... if you don't "harp the ling," do the jokes and poignancy still land?
I think this preview performance is going to give us so much insight of what's working and what's still missing. Without extensive dialogue as one would see in a theater production, for example, does the story still flow, do the themes still resonate, does the emotionality resonate? These questions will hopefully be answered and set us up for a smashing success for the premiere next summer!
WEO: Is there anything in Bulrusher you can't wrap your mind around yet? Something odd or challenging or an event still filled with potential to crack open?
LRD: This Boontling thang! While there are limited resources documenting the vast vocabulary of this jargon (a lot has been lost over the years), Nat has done amazing work researching and translating... I'm looking forward to getting up to speed and am really curious to learn the audiences' experience with the lingo on August 14th!