Jennifer Higdon has been commissioned by Opera Philadelphia to compose “Woman with Eyes Closed,” which will open the company’s O20 Festival on Sept. 17 and in a novel twist will feature three different endings.
Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music and a three-time Grammy Award winner, has teamed with librettist Jerre Dye for the 80-minute chamber work, which will be performed without intermission at the 627-seat Perelman Theater.
The opera is a fictionalized account inspired by the theft of seven artworks from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, including Lucian Freud’s 2002 painting “Woman with Eyes Closed.”
Higdon and Dye wrote three endings that last two to four minutes. The technique of multiple conclusions is perhaps most known for Rupert Holmes’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” winner of the 1986 Tony Award for best musical, when the audience voted at intermission. There were 216 possible endings for “Clue the Musical,” when the audience drew cards that determined which of the possible endings would be used.
“I think what we’re going to do is each night before the opera starts, we’ll decide which ending to take,” Higdon said. “I could see lots of logical endings to this story. The real story is still unfolding.”
Higdon’s first opera, “Cold Mountain,” premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015 and was a co-commission with Philadelphia. Now 57, she got the idea for “Woman” when she was given a story about the theft by Keith Cerny, the Dallas Opera’s general director. When “Cold Mountain” was presented by Opera Philadelphia in February 2016, general director David Devan suggested that she compose a chamber work, and Higdon recalled the theft.
Higdon composed the work for 11 instruments, and Opera Philadelphia hosted workshops in March 2018 and last October, according to the composer.
“This work isn’t really about the theft of the art in itself, although that is a big part of it, but it’s about what would you do to protect somebody that you love?” Devan said. During the workshop, the thought developed among the creative team: “Well, if there’s these choices, what about if that manifests itself in different endings?”
There will be five performances through Sept. 26.
Opera Philadelphia’s fourth season-opening festival includes a new Paul Curran staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” that opens at the Academy of Music on Sept. 18 and stars Sondra Radvanovsky and Roberto Frontali; Hans Werner Henze’s “El Cimarron (The Runaway Slave)” at the Barnes Foundation’s Annenberg Court with Willard White starting Sept. 19 and a recital with tenor Lawrence Brownlee at the Barnes Foundation on Sept. 16. The season also includes concert performances of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” in January and the Teatro Regio di Parma’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca” opening April 30 with Ana María Martínez in the title role.
Deven said agreements are in place for three more commissions for future seasons and two others are close to being signed.