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Adriana Zabala stars as Susan B. Anthony in new, dramatic song-cycle

Adriana Zabala as Susan B. Anthony

Adriana Zabala as Susan B. Anthony. Photo by Nicki Chavoya

By Lila Meretzky

Like many she’s sung before, faculty mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala’s latest role is one that she’s originating. A champion of new works, Zabala appears this week in the title role of Steven Mark Kohn’s dramatic song-cycle The Trial of Susan B. Anthony, which Zabala recently described as “an episode from an epic life.”

In 1872, along with a group of suffragists in Rochester, New York, Anthony “staged” a vote and was arrested for violating state laws that extended that right exclusively to men. Kohn’s song-cycle tells the story of Anthony’s trial and features Zabala, for whom the work was composed, singing all the roles, including Anthony, the judge, two lawyers, and a witness. 

Zabala as the witness
Zabala as the witness. Photo by Nicki Chavoya

Zabala delights in the unique challenges that come with originating new roles. As singers, she said, “our primary training is as interpretive artists. With new music, there is something so elemental about being a vessel for a new work. It’s very different from working on a piece that 1,000 professionals have performed.” But that’s not a qualitative statement. “There’s a point at which everything will be old,” Zabala said, “and at which something was new—it’s all a continuum. I see the artistic process as something sacred no matter what the piece is like.”

What is new for Zabala and the whole creative team are the circumstances in which they’re bringing a new operatic work to life. The entire production was adapted for close-up film, requiring adjustments from all involved. Zabala said she had to rethink her entire approach to performing, as she made the transition from stage to video, re-examining her diction, intensity, and acting for the new format. “When we perform live,” Zabala said, “we are responsible for reading the room and edit the performance in real time.” But on camera, the performance is no less deep: “If your truth is coursing through your soul, I’d like to believe that the truth is communicated to the camera and crew” as it is in an opera house to thousands of audience members. It was strange, she said, but “[it went] well beyond my expectations as a performer. I was very moved by that.” Zabala is bringing the question of how to perform for video to her students at YSM with the strong belief that these types of productions are only going to become more commonplace and even more deeply developed, even after the pandemic ends.

There are some surprising advantages to performing a filmed opera. The production team was able to film the work at Firehouse 12, a small live-jazz venue in New Haven. The production itself is co-produced by five organizations including the Berkshire Opera Festival, Austin Opera, Minnesota Opera, Opera Colorado, and San Diego Opera, a scope of collaboration and support that’s not always possible for a traditionally staged production.

There is an urgency to The Trial of Susan B. Anthony. The piece arrives in an election year and marks the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Anthony herself died 14 years before its passage, something Zabala hopes audiences will consider as they experience the work. The Trial, Zabala said,is “a visceral experience with Anthony’s persistence and audacity, with her single-mindedness and uncompromising will.” The story remains as hopeful and unsettling as ever.

The Berkshire Opera Festival presents Steven Mark Kohn’s The Trial of Susan B. Anthony on Monday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m., in a livestreamed world-premiere event. The production will be available on demand Oct. 27 through Nov. 8. Learn more here.

Lila Meretzky is a first-year master-of-music degree candidate in the composition program at the Yale School of Music.