Strange Trace focuses on the creation of new operas and expanding access to the art form.
Mar. 23, 2021 | by Michael Manganiello
“An event is not what occupies the front page of the newspaper. We don’t know how to explain it or even to name it. And yet, if it occurs it must touch some ‘surface’ where it leaves its trace: a consciousness, an unconsciousness, individual or collective. Perhaps it even had to invent this surface in order to leave such a trace. It is a strange trace.”– JEAN-FRANCIOS LYOTARD
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertain future of the theatrical experience, six innovative artists joined forces to create Strange Trace, an opera company whose mission is opera for now / opera for everyone. I spoke with Peabody student Joshua Scheid (DMA, voice), who is one of the founding members of Strange Trace, to find out more about the concept and development of the company, as well as their mission and creative process.
Strange Trace was formed by six friends who met at the Boston Conservatory where they studied contemporary music, vocal performance, and composition. Seeking to create a more just world through relevant and meaningful art, they began to brainstorm over several Zoom sessions on a plan to launch and organize long-term projects.
On July 15, 2020, Strange Trace premiered on YouTube with See You Today, which was composed by Scheid in 2018. See You Today was originally composed for solo vocalist and projected text in six scenes. With a roster of six performers, and a new method of text display, Scheid was able to adapt the piece easily to fit both the company and the virtual platform. Scheid mentions that “this was an opportunity to test the waters of building a production for the internet by learning and workshopping audio/video editing, as well as virtual audience outreach and engagement.” Emails from Gary premiered two months later in a similar fashion, seamlessly transforming a staged work to the computer screen. Whereas most operatic works exist in the moment on stage, or those that are filmed and streamed require a paid subscription, both of these works remain available online for free.
While See You Today and Emails from Gary were composed prior to Strange Trace’s formation, The Missing Piece marked their first performance of a newly composed work. This piece was composed by the members of Strange Trace and was specifically designed for a performance over Zoom. In this piece, “six employees of a puzzle company meet on Zoom during the COVID-19 quarantine, but no one knows who set up the meeting. And why is everyone singing?” With works like The Missing Piece, the group hopes to reach audience members through timely themes and accessible platforms like YouTube.
Whilst creating and virtually staging these performances, members also focused on the Stencils Festival, which is set to premier in spring 2021. Scheid based the format of Stencils off of the Opera Études program at Peabody. Through Stencils, the group is excited to workshop new operas, and uplift underrepresented voices in the field of composition. In line with their goal of opera for now, the group put out an international call for proposals for newly conceptualised pieces. The response was very successful, and after deliberations and interviews, the line up now features a diverse roster of collaborative talent from around the world. Strange Trace plans to make Stencils an annual event, incorporating in-person workshopping and tours in the future.
In addition to brainstorming projects and performances, Scheid mentioned the importance of designing the group’s identity early in its creation. The members of Strange Trace discussed who they wanted to be as an opera company, and how their formative experiences in their careers shaped them as artists and collaborators. Their opera for everyone mindset is found in their core values of justice and access, as stated in their mission statement:
“We are committed to imagining a more just world and, through our actions, to work toward that justice. We believe that institutional barriers to access to the arts is an injustice and that creating a space for artistic expression and reception that is welcoming, supportive, and affordable is paramount.”
The current virtual-only format has been a valuable way for the group to increase access to their art. While they greatly look forward to expanding their platform to in-person events, the virtual events hosted on their YouTube page have reached audiences far and wide. Stencils and other future performances will be ticketed events, but the group pledges to reserve need-based comp tickets so that they continue to remain affordable and approachable. On the topic of accessibility, Scheid says “access isn’t about reducing complex and challenging material in music – it’s about understanding where your audience is, and providing them a means to come to an understanding of your work.” On top of expanding their performance repertoire Strange Trace hopes to grow their repertoire of ways to build bridges of understanding, whether that’s through exploring the use of subtitles or program notes, featuring interviews with composers and librettists, or developing new outreach and engagement initiatives.
“Strange Trace understands that we are new on the scene, and with that comes challenges and opportunities when it comes to advocating for and working towards justice. While we may not have the resources and social gravity of larger, more established institutions, the timing of our inception allows—indeed commands—us to include practices of justice within the very foundation of our work. Our core values as an institution reflect this, and we will work to hold ourselves accountable to them.”
To keep up with the exciting innovations of Strange Trace, be sure to visit their website, sign up for their newsletter, and follow them on their social media pages.
Michael is a vocalist and voice teacher who thrives in an interdisciplinary artistic environment, and strives to question and dismantle the boundaries and barriers in the field of vocal performance.