‘Inheritance’ Chamber Opera Uses Art and Music to Address a Complex Social Issue
Using legendary story of Sarah Winchester, Department of Music professors stage timely world-premiere about gun violence in America
Moved by headlines of yet another mass shooting in the United States, a team of musicians and artists felt it was time to take action. And while there are many ways to address an issue that increasingly touches every life, they did what most artists would do. They turned to their craft.
“It’s such a complicated topic, gun violence in America,” said Susan Narucki, an award-winning singer, professor in the UC San Diego Department of Music and producer of “Inheritance,” the new chamber opera that receives its world premiere on campus Oct. 24.
“We are in a time when people are talking past one another. How can we have a conversation about such a difficult topic, which impacts our society in such a significant way?” she said. “As artists, we can and need to be part of that conversation, and this is a way to do it.”
“Inheritance” uses the legendary story of Sarah Winchester—the enigmatic heir to the Winchester rifle fortune who, as history tells it, was haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles—to initiate a deep, thoughtful look at a very contemporary issue.
Friend and longtime collaborator Lei Liang, a world-renowned composer in the Department of Music who was recently named Qualcomm Institute’s inaugural Research Artist in Residence, was quickly on board with writing the score for a project of this scope. As parent of a young child, school shootings in particular became front of mind in the early stages of developing the opera.
“I feel liberated that I’m dealing with issues that are important to me,” he said. “Issues that I can create an artistic expression for, inviting people to have an experience in each performance so that it gives them more space to imagine, to contemplate and more space to perhaps face themselves.”
While composing, Liang repeatedly read statistics about gun deaths in the U.S. as motivation: Every day, 47 children and teens are shot. Every day, 342 people in America are shot. In one year on average, 17,207 American children are shot. The numbers become overwhelming.
“Just during the course of composing this work—the record number of people dead, the mass shootings increasing—who knows when it’s going to hit us again,” Liang explained, saying he wanted to give people like Sarah Winchester a voice. “There are real human sufferings that are taking place right around us, and we need to wake up and be mindful of them.”
Yet giving Sarah Winchester a voice isn’t easy, because it’s difficult to pull fact from fiction in her story. Some said she was instructed to build a mansion as an act of penance for the ghosts of Winchester-rifle victims, and so a converted farmhouse in San Jose grew to seven stories, with endless hallways and stairs that led nowhere. Under constant construction to help appease the spirits, it all ended when Winchester died in 1922, and today the site is a California Historical Landmark and avid tourist destination.
True or not, one point remains: Sarah Winchester suffered the loss of both her husband and their infant child, a devastation that likely led to a deep depression. After her death, it was discovered that the only things she kept hidden in her safe were two locks of hair: one from her husband, one from her daughter.
“As performers, we reflect on the narrative that’s being told: the story of an interesting woman who has a secret pain and a secret guilt for which she wanted to atone,” Narucki said. “But our job is to go further; to connect the audience to the essence of Winchester’s story and how it connects to our own time, our own lives and the questions we are asking as a society about what is acceptable for our children.”
The opera’s libretto, or text, is by poet Matt Donovan of Smith College. Production design, including costumes, set and extensive video footage, are created by artist Ligia Bouton of Mount Holyoke College. UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Music and Reed Family Presidential Chair Steven Schick serves as music director for Liang’s original score, and Cara Consilvio serves as stage director, with lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins.
In addition to Narucki as Sarah Winchester, vocal performers for “Inheritance” include sopranos Hillary Jean Young and Kirsten Ashley Wiest—graduate students in the Department of Music—and acclaimed baritone Josué Cerón of Mexico. Schick will lead the eight-musician ensemble, in which award-winning faculty members and graduate students from the university will perform side by side.
Commissioned and produced by Narucki, “Inheritance” is supported in part by the UC San Diego Division of Arts and Humanities, Creative Capital, New Music USA and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional underwriting comes from Phyllis and Dan Epstein, Julia Falk and Catherine and Robert Palmer.
“What excites me in the Department of Music is that it’s so future oriented,” said Phyllis Epstein. “This is a great story and a great opera. It’s something so different, written locally and performed locally.”
Narucki echoes the sentiment, saying the collaboration with faculty members, students and the greater community is a model that is important to the work she does at UC San Diego. And while she isn’t quite convinced all the ‘legends’ of Sarah Winchester are true, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
“I think that if this character in this opera, Sarah Winchester, had the choice to give up all the immense wealth that she inherited and have one minute more with her daughter, I know what that choice would be,” Narucki said. “And with the gun debate, there are so many things about it that are unclear—so many voices crossing—but ultimately, you get to that one simple idea, and that’s irrefutable.”
Co-presented by the Department of Music and ArtPower at UC San Diego, “Inheritance” runs for three performances only: Oct. 24, 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. in the UC San Diego Conrad Prebys Music Center Experimental Theater. Individual, general admission seats are $25; $14 for youth age 5-17. Tickets and parking information are available via ArtPower.