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Original opera explores UFOs, conspiracy theories and the meaning of truth

by Chuck Gordon

An opera written by music professor David Brooks is getting its world premiere at Wingate next month. The production has many elements of traditional opera, including romance and death, but is set in the world of conspiracy theories and UFO sightings. 

Composer and music professor David Brooks

Small-town Arkansas, 1993. Zeke, the local conspiracy theorist, sees strange lights in the sky: a UFO – or at least that’s what he tells townsfolk it was. “At first, everyone thinks that this just is Zeke being crazy again,” says David Brooks, assistant professor of music. “Then, one night, the whole town saw it.”

The subsequent hysteria that occurs in the tiny town of Urban is the subject of Urban Legend, an opera written by Brooks and premiering at Wingate early next month. The opera will be held Nov. 2 and 3 in the Batte Center’s McGee Theatre.

Urban Legend is perhaps not what most people think of when they think of opera. It’s fast-paced, with subject matter worthy of reality TV. It has all the thematic elements of traditional opera – a tragic figure, a death, a love story – but in a quirky modern setting.

Although the opera is sung in English, the provided supertitles will come in handy for audience members. According to Brooks, Urban Legend has the second-most words of any opera ever written, behind only the four-and-a-half-hour Parsifal, by Wagner. Urban Legend crams its dialogue into a mere two hours.

Brooks compares the pacing of Urban Legend to that of the hit Broadway show Hamilton: “It’s dialogue delivered at hip-hop speed, but with contemporary classical sounds.”

When he was 7 years old, Brooks remembers seeing a TV news report on the UFO sighting in Urban. It fascinated him, and a few years later he read a book on UFO sightings that included the Urban story. A couple of years ago, Brooks started developing the story into an opera, modifying it and including elements from Heaven’s Gate and other cults, plus, he says, “a healthy dose of Alex Jones.”

In Urban Legend, the townsfolk get whipped into a frenzy by the supposed UFO sightings. Brooks hopes people enjoy the opera for the TV-like entertainment value while also digging a little deeper into the meaning of reality and truth. “Someone once said that opera is never about what the story is,” Brooks says. “It’s not about the Montagues and Capulets – that’s just the setting.”

Poster for Urban Legend

Wingate’s music department traditionally puts on a full opera in the fall and then performs selected scenes from other operas in the spring. Past productions include The Pirates of Penzance, Hansel and Gretel, La Cenerentola and Die Fledermaus. When Brooks mentioned to Jessie Wright Martin, director of Wingate’s opera program, that he was writing an opera, she revealed that the department was still undecided on a production for the fall of 2018. They eventually settled on producing Brooks’s work. Martin is especially pleased that her students get to take part in a world premiere.

The making of the opera is an all-hands-on-deck affair. Brooks says that about 100 University-affiliated people are involved in the production, including faculty members, students and support staff. They’re working feverishly now as the show dates draw nearer. Wingate operates on a professional opera schedule, rather than a modified school-production schedule, which is great for real-life experience but could produce a few ulcers over the next couple of weeks.

“Everything is compressed when it comes down to production week,” Brooks says. “Other schools will have a month-long schedule where things are taking shape, and you have many, many opportunities to get it right. Here, you have to come to the first rehearsal memorized, which is how it is in the real world. It’s good training, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like until it’s happening.”

Well, Brooks does have some idea of how it’s going to go. After all, it’s his vision that’s being produced. “It’s surreal to hear the music that’s been inside my head be not inside my head,” he says. “Just walking down the halls and hearing people practice the music that you wrote is really cool.”

Tickets are now available for both shows: Friday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 3, at 2:30 p.m.

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