NACOGDOCHES, Texas – It’s not unusual for those associated with Stephen F. Austin State University School of Music to unexpectedly find themselves collaborating with each other in professional settings beyond the confines of the university campus.
Just recently, Dr. Ben Morris, composition faculty in the School of Music, and Amanda Sheriff, SFA graduate and professional opera singer, worked together on the world premiere of Morris’ youth opera “The Rip Van Winkles” at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.
Sheriff, who earned a Bachelor of Music Education in 2016 and a Master of Music in vocal performance in 2018, is among this summers’ young artists invited to perform small roles and chorus for all of the Glimmerglass Festival’s MainStage productions. Young artists have opportunities to coach and be taught by some of the best in the business, and they also are offered industry auditions for other opera companies and managers in the field.
Neither she nor Morris knew that they would wind up working together as “The Rip Van Winkles” was being composed. As it turned out, Morris said Sheriff was “perfect for the role of Callista,” and Sheriff described Morris as “a fantastic collaborator during the entire process.”
“It was totally coincidental that we both happened to work on this piece together,” Morris said. “This is a world-class opera company with a wide reach. SFA alumni and faculty are getting out there in the opera world right now.”
“The Rip Van Winkles” is a one-act youth opera set in a secluded upstate town that is “suspiciously short on cell reception,” explains Morris. It tells the story of Fabi, a teenage New York City transplant learning to adapt to this new town — and unraveling a mystery along the way. It is a twist on the Washington Irving story “Rip Van Winkle ”about a man who falls asleep for 20 years as the world changes around him. The opera tips its hat to the original story but features an original set of characters in an original setting. Sheriff played the role of Callista, Fabi’s mother. The opera features a cast of young performers from age 6 to 18 and singers from the Glimmerglass Young Artist cohort, of which Sheriff is a part.
“Amanda did an amazing job of embodying the character of Callista with a sense of humor and pathos,” he said. “There are challenging coloratura parts in the piece, and Amanda nailed them. Throughout our workshop and rehearsal process, she was flexible and receptive to changes we made in the score. She has a rich voice that draws the listener in.”
With the work being a world premiere, Morris provided cast members with a MIDI file of the piece so the performers could hear it.
“It is always so nice to work with a living composer because the piece is also alive,” Sheriff said. “Ben was able to continually change the piece to tailor fit each of us, and he was always complimentary and adaptable in every rehearsal.”
Morris and Sheriff described “The Rip Van Winkles” as an audience favorite.
“We had a full house the opening night with enthusiastic reaction to the catchy tunes, clever lyrics and humorous libretto,” he said.
Morris is an active opera composer, frequently collaborating with librettist Laura Fuentes, who wrote the words for “The Rip Van Winkles.” His recent collaborations with Fuentes include “Colorado Sky,” a shadow puppet opera which premiered at the Dairy Center in Colorado in June and was commissioned by Art Song Colorado, Sohap Ensemble and Boulder Opera. Fuentes and Morris also collaborated on “Las Auténticas” for the Washington National Opera American Opera Initiative in 2021, and “The Fall of Man and Other Tales,” an immersive multimedia opera with projections at the ATLAS B2 Blackbox in April 2022.
Among his other recent career highlights include being awarded Fulbright and American-Scandinavian Foundation grants to study at the Norwegian Academy of Music and compose a multimedia work about his Norwegian heritage. His research at the National Library of Norway in Oslo will culminate in a book to be published in 2025 about the intersection of Norwegian folk music, classical music and jazz. His 2022 debut album, “Pocket Guides,” features elements from Norwegian folk music, jazz and chamber music. Music on the album won two Downbeat Awards, two ASCAP Herb Alpert Jazz Composer Awards, and a big band commission from New York Youth Symphony’s First Music Program.
At SFA, Morris teaches music composition lessons, film scoring, graduate orchestration and advanced jazz improvisation. His upcoming projects include a multimedia commission with the Houston-based ensemble Loop38. The piece, about the loss of longleaf pine forest in East Texas, will premiere in spring 2024 at SFA and will feature lectures from SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture.
Sheriff currently lives in Smyrna, Delaware. Among her favorite performances since graduating from SFA was her first role in Italian, Susannah in “Le Nozze di Figaro” by Mozart at Seagle Music Festival. Another favorite was the role of Miss Lightfoot in “Fellow Travelers” by Gregory Spears at Des Moines Metro Opera. “This opera discussed the Lavender Scare during the McCarthy era, and it is the only show that I have ever done that I believe touches on a subject that should be more openly discussed,” she said. “This opera changed my life.” She was also awarded first prize last year in the prestigious and highly competitive Lotte Lenya Competition in New York City.
After she concludes her commitment as a young artist at the Glimmerglass Festival, Sheriff will head to Atlanta Opera to be a part of their studio program for the 2023-24 season. She will also debut her first Musetta role in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohéme” at Intermountain Opera Bozeman in April.
Sheriff said she is grateful for the vocal training she received at SFA. “I would like to thank Mrs. (Debbie) Berry for her support and belief in me,” she said. “If it were not for her, I would not be a professional opera singer. I am eternally grateful for her direction and grace over the six years I studied with her.”
Morris said SFA’s composition program fosters a “collaborative attitude” among students, facilitating opportunities for them to work with their colleagues in theatre, dance and film, as well as performers from the School of Music. “I want to embody these collaborative values myself by participating in interdisciplinary projects like ‘The Rip Van Winkles,’” he said. “I bring my experiences back to the classroom to inspire my students to forge their own creative relationships that will last throughout their careers.”