As a graduate student at Columbia University in 2001, Doug Geers experienced the events of Sept. 11 firsthand.
Seven years later, Geers, now an associate professor at the University’s School of Music , is the composer behind a 90-minute electroacoustics musical score of a new Sept. 11 -inspired opera.
“Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness” made its debut Friday at LaMama , an experimental theatre club in New York City.
The work is based on “A Mother’s Essays from Ground Zero ,” a book written by Wickham Boyle , a New York writer and mother who lived blocks from ground zero.
Boyle said the project began after she hired Geers to put music together for a fashion show she produced for New York’s fashion week three years ago.
While out for tea together, Boyle said she proposed the idea of turning her book into an opera. Geers agreed to take on the task of putting her words to music.
Geers said his original motivation to take on the project was to work with Boyle again, but it turned into so much more.
“I had never written an opera before, but I said, ‘I’m going to do it and I am going to try,’” he said.
The story, which Geers said is “up-close and down to earth,” follows the life of one family witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center and the journey they take from sadness to finding forgiveness and hope for the future.
“It’s very personal. It’s not abstracting it. It’s really talking about people,” Geers said. “Everyone who experienced it has a story.”
Geers said he composed the opera in pieces, and segments of the show were performed as test runs at different venues.
Boyle likened the process to preparing for a large holiday meal.
“You know how you try out different courses on people and then serve it all for Thanksgiving?” she said. “It’s kind of what we did.”
The University was the site of one of the workshops during the 2008 Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts in February.
Timothy Bruett , a School of Music graduate student, sang the part of the father during the University workshop production.
He said the use of electronic music makes the opera unique, especially during the scene when the plane hits the second tower.
“The computer started making so many random, squealing noises,” he said. “It was interesting, the noises [Geers] used to embody that. It literally sounded like twisting metal.”
Director of University Opera Theatre David Walsh directed the University workshop version of “Calling” and said although he liked the idea of the opera, he used the workshop as an opportunity to recommend some changes to Geers.
“The tricky thing with a piece like this is we’re still really close in time to that event,” he said. “And it’s easy to get off on a sort of a sentimental track.”
Walsh said critiquing the work was important because he didn’t want the work to portray just the day’s events, but rather a larger context.
Although the story surrounds the events of Sept. 11, Geers said the action only sets the story in motion; it’s not the ultimate message of the piece.
“It’s a story of trying to find how you can cope with the bad things that happen in life,” he said, “and how you can find your way to the other side and find hope.”
Boyle said the line that truly defines the message of the opera comes from the character of a firefighter in the production who sings, “This is dedicated to all of us with more hope than hate.”
Everyone has something they need to move on from, she said.
The opera runs through Sept. 28 in New York, but Walsh said there has been discussion of performing the full production of “Calling” at the University in the future.
“It’s a pretty potent theme,” he said. “It’s one of the landmark events in American history, even if it is recent. And, how one deals with that and thinks about it is of interest to people.”