About the opera

Inheritance (2018) is a chamber opera that revolves around Sarah Winchester, the eccentric widow and heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune.  According to popular belief, she imprisoned herself in her labyrinth-like home to seek refuge from the spirits of those killed by the same weapons whose manufacture and sale gave her a life of indescribable wealth.  With music by composer Lei Liang and libretto by poet Matt Donovan, Inheritance juxtaposes elements of Winchester’s biography with contemporary events in a work that explores America’s deeply complex relationship with guns Visual artist Ligia Bouton creates the production design and Susan Narucki serves as producer of the opera and creates the role of Sarah Winchester.

Photos: Farshid Bazmandegan

Music director Steven Schick  led the world premiere performances in a staging by innovative young stage director Cara Consilvio, with lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins. The hour-long work has a cast of four. In addition to Narucki, Ghost 1 and Ghost 2 were played by sopranos Kirsten Ashley Wiest and Hillary Jean Young, while renowned Mexican baritone Josué Ceron created the role of the Tour Guide/Ghost.

The opera is scored for chamber ensemble of eight musicians. The musicians of the world premiere included: Mark Dresser (bass), Anthony Burr and Madison Greenstone (clarinet/bass clarinet), Takae Onishi (harpsichord, Pablo Gomez Cano (guitar) David Aguila (trumpet), Fiona Digney and Sean Dowgray (percussion).

Inheritance had its world premiere on October 24, 2018 at the Experimental Theater of the Conrad Prebys Music Center at the UC San Diego, with two subsequent performances on October 26 and October 27, 2018.

Inheritance is supported by the Creative Capital Foundation, the University of California at San Diego, the UC San Diego Department of Music, UC San Diego Division of Arts and Humanities, New Music USA and the National Endowment for the Arts.  It is a co-presentation of ArtPower and the UC San Diego Department of Music

Retaking the Stage: What Artists Can Be In Our Society

By James Chute December 12, 2018 NEW MUSIC BOX

Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance, which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.

 Photo: Farshid Bazmandegan

Photo: Farshid Bazmandegan

“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.

“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”

That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”

Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.

Read the in-depth article


Can Engaging with Contemporary Social Issues Save the Opera?

By M. Sophia Newman, NEXT CITY October 31, 2018

“…Meanwhile, on the West Coast, opera is taking an even more socially-engaged turn. From Oct. 24 to 27, a group at University of California San Diego mounted “Inheritance,” a new opera about Sarah Winchester, inheritor of the Winchester rifle company fortune and owner of a house said to be haunted by people killed with that brand of firearms.

Producer Susan Narucki says the idea was “to try to find a way to have the past speak to the present” by juxtaposing scenes from Winchester’s life with those of a modern school shooting. Co-creators Narucki, Lei Liang, Ligia Bouton, and Matt Donovan aimed for what she called “work that can be very disturbing and very provocative” to communicate horror at gun violence.

“It’s not the same thing as going to the Met,” Narucki says about the spectator experience, describing an intergenerational audience with “a lot of people who I don’t think have been to the opera before.” Although the formal program extended no farther than the opera itself, Narucki notes that “people stayed afterward in the performance space for about an hour to talk … They didn’t want to leave.”.

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Lei Liang’s Opera ‘Inheritance’ Premieres in La Jolla

By Ken Herman, San Diego Story

“Upon the demise of William Wirt Winchester in 1881, his wife Sarah Winchester immediately became one of the world’s wealthiest women. With a sizable inheritance, a 50% interest in the New England Winchester rifle firm, and no children, Sarah had at her disposal more money than she could possibly spend in a single lifetime. For reasons shrouded in mystery and fantasy, Sarah invested her time and fortune in the unceasing expansion of her San Jose mansion, known today as the Winchester Mystery House. San Diego composer Lei Liang has taken the eccentric heiress and her strange obsessions and turned them into a one-act chamber opera, aptly titled Inheritance, which received its premiere last week in the Experimental Theatre at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Music Center.

Central to the Sarah Winchester legend is her contact with the spirit world, and even today her mansion’s claim to be haunted by the ghosts of persons slain by Winchester rifles accounts for much of its allure to the tourist trade. Liang has built his opera around the personage of Sarah, magisterially acted and beautifully sung by fellow UC San Diego music faculty member Susan Narucki. In decidedly secondary roles, sopranos Kirsten Ashley Wiest and Hilary Jean Young, both graduate students at the university, portrayed ghosts and household servants, while Mexican baritone Josué Cerón sang the role of the Tour Guide.

Creating Sarah’s mysterious, haunted world fell to Liang’s eight-member chamber ensemble, deftly conducted by Steven Schick and dominated by percussion and wind instruments, although the composer did find room in this colorful octet for a harpsichord, played by virtuoso harpsichordist Takae Ohnishi, Liang’s wife. Quavering motifs, transparent textures, and sinuous lines that rarely resolve in expected places form Liang’s piquant sonic palette, whose gamut ran from startling, loud bass drum notes—rifle shots or mysteriously slamming doors, perhaps—and the ominous chortling from a pair of bass clarinets to evanescent ghostly glissandos plucked from the highest harpsichord strings.

But the opera revolves around Sarah and her obsession with death, notably the sudden death of her infant daughter—her only child—and the deaths caused by Winchester rifles, the conscience-troubling  source of her wealth and comfort. For his soprano main character, Liang crafted a subtle parlando that blooms only after Sarah cautiously reveals herself as the opera progresses, following Matt Donovan’s poetic libretto. This vocal style suited Narucki admirably, allowing the more radiant, plush attributes of her gleaming soprano to shine. Usually I encounter Narucki performing with amazing agility some punishing, acrobatic avant-garde work that compromises the allure of her bel canto technique in order to navigate such thorny complexities. Not that Liang reverted to the Italianate vocal bravura of a Gian Carlo Menotti, of course, but the unhurried gentle curves of Liang’s lyrical style for the role of Sarah proved a gift to both singer and listener….”

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Inheritance’ buoyed by strong score, singing and technical production, but hampered by problematic libretto

By Christian Herzog, San Diego Union Tribune

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is the world’s strangest building. With over 150 rooms, staircases and labyrinthine hallways lead to dead ends. There’s a skylight built into an indoor floor and a door opens up to a solid wall.

This crazy Victorian mansion is the setting for “Inheritance,” an opera by composer Lei Liang and librettist Matt Donovan, which premiered Wednesday night at the Conrad Prebys Music Center on the campus of UC San Diego.

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New chamber opera ‘Inheritance’ explores grief through the story of Sarah Winchester and her bizarre home

By Beth Wood, San Diego Union-Tribune

How do you tell the story of a brilliant but conflicted woman who constantly added on rooms to her Victorian-style home? How do you display on stage the labyrinthine house, which was said to be haunted and later became a somewhat garish tourist site? And, most importantly, how do you explore the issue of gun violence through music, voice, beauty, compassion and humor?

The answers will be revealed in the world premiere of “Inheritance,” a groundbreaking chamber opera co-presented by ArtPower and the UC San Diego Music Department on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

One short answer is that it required a three-year collaboration among four accomplished artists in different fields. That, plus a small troop of financial and hands-on supporters.

The opera is based on the life and legend of Sarah Winchester, the widow of rifle magnate William Wirt Winchester, who died in 1881. According to folklore, she was advised by a psychic to outsmart the ghosts in their San Jose home, now called the Winchester Mystery House, by continuously adding on rooms.

Composer Lei Liang and Grammy Award-winning soprano Susan Narucki, both UC San Diego music professors, recruited the married couple of poet/writer Matt Donovan and visual artist Ligia Bouton. Donovan, Liang and their families spent almost a year in Rome when the two men were awarded fellowships at the American Academy there.

“Personally, I like to work with a circle of friends,” said Narucki, who will portray Winchester and is “Inheritance’s” producer. “Lei told me about these wonderful people. I was drawn to the idea that both were new to opera. It’s interesting to work with people who have a fresh take on the genre.

“We all learned a lot from each other. We brought different strengths and allowed it to go in directions it might not have gone.”

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October 18, 2018

UCSD News Center ‘Inheritance’ Chamber Opera Uses Art and Music to Address a Complex Social Issue

By Anthony King

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.”

READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE


October 16, 2018

The “WHY” OF INHERITANCE

Director Cara Consilvio, composer Lei Liang and producer/soprano Susan Narucki discuss the impetus behind the “Inheritance” opera project.

September 27, 2018

UC San DIEGO NEWS CENTER - CHAMBER OPERA Addressing GUN violence to receive world premiere at UC San Diego

By Anthony King - Grammy Award-winning soprano Susan Narucki, “Inheritance” uses legendary story of Sarah Winchester to spark discussion about guns in today’s culture.

Produced by Grammy Award-winning soprano and Department of Music faculty member Susan Narucki presents the world-premiere chamber opera “Inheritance” at UC San Diego, using the legendary story of Sarah Winchester to address gun violence in the United States.

Narucki will portray Winchester, the eccentric widow and rifle-company heir who was self-imprisoned in her California mansion, haunted by the spirits of those killed by the firearms that made her family’s fortune. “Inheritance” interweaves Winchester’s story with events from contemporary life, asking complex questions about complicity, atonement and gun control in our society.

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September 16, 2018

Inheritance - A top ten pick in San Diego u-T Fall Arts Preview

San Diego Union Tribune Arts Writer Beth Wood lists Inheritance as a pick of the Fall Arts Season. We are honored to be listed alongside some of San Diego’s premiere arts venues and organizations. Tickets for the October 24, 2018 premiere are on sale now.


September 12, 2018

Inheritance” examines gun violence via a multimedia Chamber opera

New production examining the life of Sarah Winchester to make local debut at UC San Diego

By Jeff Terich, San Diego City Beat

Opera is an art form steeped in tragedy. Suicide. Infidelity. Tuberculosis. Murderous, cuckolded clowns. Yet it’s not often that those narratives stretch beyond the stage and into the long-term socio-political implications of those tragedies.  

Inheritance—a multimedia chamber opera being staged Oct. 24, 26 and 27 at UC San Diego’s Prebys Experimental Theater—is a work whose composers seek to change that approach. With music composed by Lei Liang and libretto (text) by Matt Donovan—led by music director Steven Schick and featuring soprano Susan Narucki—Inheritance spotlights America’s epidemic of gun violence via the story of Sarah Winchester. The widow of William Wirt Winchester, whose namesake was one of the earliest mass-produced repeating rifles, Sarah Winchester became famous for construction of the Winchester Mystery House, a curious estate built to confuse the spirits that haunted her.

“In the opening scene, Sarah Winchester is already old, sitting in her house where she’s trying to trap the ghosts that haunt her,” Liang says of the production. “The music begins very dramatically. And these are sounds that only Sarah can hear. She’s haunted by the deaths caused by her late husband’s rifle.” 

This isn’t the first opera to address contemporary social issues from Liang and Narucki. The two artists previously worked together on Cuatro Corridos, an opera dealing with human trafficking that was nominated for a Latin Grammy award. Both of them have a similar outlook on opera, in that it should be able to transcend entertainment.

“We all share the idea that new music shouldn’t be separate from social issues,” Liang says. “It can serve the purpose of giving the voiceless a voice. “These issues are so urgent. We wanted to respond to them in a humane, sophisticated way.” 

Narucki adds, however, that the key to a successful modern opera is thinking outside of the expected norms. A performance that’s meant to be staged in a smaller venue, as Inheritance is, can open up more possibilities and thus more people hearing its message.

“Over the past five years, more and more people are figuring out how to create stories relevant to social issues that connect past and present,” Narucki says. “Opera’s been around for 500 years, and operas that are successful on a smaller scale are more fluid. Making every production to be heard in a 3,000-seat auditorium is not always financially viable.” 

Even though Inheritance isn’t being housed in a large auditorium, it’s still intended to leave an impact, not just because of its underlying message but because of its production. In addition to Narucki, the production features music performed by clarinetist Anthony Burr, bassist Mark Dresser, guitarist Pablo Gomez, harpsichordist Takae Onishi, and trumpeter Stephanie Richards, and art design by Ligia Bouton, including a backdrop of the famed Winchester Mystery House itself. 

The creators of Inheritance promise a multimedia experience that steps outside of what can be expected of an operatic production. But Narucki has her own specific hopes for what kind of impression the work leaves on the audience.

“If one person sees this and is moved to rethink possibilities of how we experience and interact with the world, then I think we’ve succeeded.” 


July 23, 2018

INHERITANCE - TICKETS ON SALE

Tickets to the  October 24, 2018 world premiere of Inheritance by Lei Liang and Matt Donovan are on sale now through ARTPower, UC San Diego's campus arts presenter.  Billed as one of four season special events, Inheritance will have a run of three performances in the intimate Experimental Theater of the Conrad Prebys Music Center on the UC San Diego campus.  For more information and to order ticke


June 17, 2018

San Diego Union Tribune - ArtPower to traverse wide world of music, dance and much more in 15th season at UCSD 

"......At least a few of the performances in the upcoming season will offer social commentary about the world in general and the state of this nation specifically. One of them is the premiere of “Inheritance,” a multimedia chamber opera about gun violence that features music by Lei Liang and a libretto by Matt Donovan. Steven Schick will serve as its music director while soprano Susan Narucki, the driving force behind “Inheritance,” will be the featured singer. (Liang, Schick and Narucki are all professors at UCSD.)"  Read the article by George Varga.

 

June 1, 2018

"Inheritance" Awarded New Music USA Project grant

New Music USA announced today its eighth round of project grants, totaling $530,000 in funding to support artistic work involving a wide range of new American music. The 108 awarded projects include concerts and recordings, as well as support for dance, theater, opera, and more, all involving contemporary music as an essential element. Of the newly awarded projects, 44% feature people of color and 63% feature female or non-binary project organizers or main collaborators.  Inheritance was among the recipients of this prestigious and competitive award. 

The overarching goal of project grants is to reach and aggregate the communities of new music enthusiasts, irrespective of genre preferences, and allow the public to discover new artistic work.

To follow the project as it unfolds, visit our project page:  https://newmusicusa.org/projects/Inheritance-a-chamber-opera

About the team

Inheritance brings together award-winning creative and performing artists in a unique artist-led collaborative model.  The team seeks to create a contemporary chamber opera of high artistic value that will speak an an issue of critical importance in contemporary American society. 

How did the Inheritance opera project come about?  Composer Lei Liang, librettist Matt Donovan and artist Ligia Bouton met in Italy, while Lei and Matt they were both recipients of the 2011 Rome Prize, in Composition and Literature, respectively.  The opera is a continuation of work that soprano/producer Susan Narucki has begun in creating operas that speak to contemporary social issues, and collaborated with Lei Liang on her 2013 project Cuatro Corridos. Both have longstanding collaborations with conductor Steven Schick.   Learn more about the individuals who have brought this unique opera to life.

More about the Inheritance residency at the Leighton Artists Colony