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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Sound Source: Student-produced biblical opera explores womanhood, loss

“devoted,” a student-produced opera that delves into the backstory of the women in Jesus Christ’s story, will premiere March 30 at Northwestern’s Ryan Opera Theater. The piece explores the motivations and themes in the opera.


WILLIAM TONG: Those are the voices of Bienen sophomores Cece Olszewski and Isabel Yang. They’re rehearsing the song “my mess.” It’s part of an opera Olszewski wrote the music and lyrics for called “devoted,” and it’s premiering on March 30.

Yang is a voice and opera major who plays Mary in the show. It explores themes of womanhood, sacrifice, abandonment and self-love from the perspective of the two women closest to Jesus Christ.

Olszewski’s main role is music director — she conducts rehearsals, sets up performance logistics and tries to get the show’s sound just right.

CECE OLSZEWSKI: Because it’s kind of a high-pressure thing to be putting on an opera, especially here, you know. It’s a lot of work for me, so it’s really fun to come to these rehearsals and kind of, almost decompress.

[music fade in]

WILLIAM TONG: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m William Tong. Welcome to this episode of Sound Source, a podcast tuning into music at and around Northwestern. Today, we’re following 12 students who are putting on an opera about the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene — as teenage girls trapped in purgatory.

[music fade out]

CECE OLSZEWSKI: In “devoted,” the two Marys are these two teenage girls, because mentally, they’re stuck in the age their lives were taken from them — at the age that they decided to drop everything and become fully devoted.

WILLIAM TONG: Olszewski said that’s why the show is set in a teenage girl’s bedroom.
The imaginary space represents a mental purgatory — the intermediate realm where the Marys’ souls must wait before they can enter heaven. They’re not in heaven because they’ve been abandoned by Jesus after they died.

CECE OLSZEWSKI: In this portrayal of the afterlife, they’re not being returned to Jesus. They’ve been kind of betrayed, they’ve been forsaken because he’s not there. And they realize that this whole story, he’s not been there.

WILLIAM TONG: Yang’s character, the Virgin Mary, also deals with the sacrifices of motherhood. Olszewski, who was raised Catholic, said many sources point to the Virgin Mary being between 12-14 years old when she found out she was pregnant with Jesus.

The two women played pivotal roles in Jesus’s life, and watched both his death and rebirth. But, Yang said that the opera’s depiction of the two Marys outside of their connection to Christ are especially poignant.

ISABEL YANG: The plot is centered on these two women — yes, because of their relationship to Jesus — but it also explores themes of their own womanhood as individuals outside of this connection to a man.

WILLIAM TONG: Technically, the show’s characters are just two nondescript Marys, but Olszewski said she wanted to strongly allude to the two biblical figures. She was inspired by a painting of Mary Magdalene that she saw during her freshman fall art history class, she said.

CECE OLSZEWSKI: That painting just kind of sparked this idea in me of what it feels like to give up everything for someone else.

WILLIAM TONG: It wasn’t until April that she got into the nitty gritty of building the piece, though.

CECE OLSZEWSKI: I had this concept that was kind of brewing at the back of my mind for the whole year — for my whole freshman year. And then, I broke up with my boyfriend, and I immediately called up my three close friends.

WILLIAM TONG: They held weekly Zoom meetings to talk through the opera’s plot, textual sources and musical inspirations.

CECE OLSZEWSKI: It was just a really healing process for us to just have like these really strong, creative women in my life.

WILLIAM TONG: The opera is 40 minutes long and features eight songs. Despite its relatively short runtime, it’s anything but shallow.

MYA VANDEGRIFT: There’s just a lot of beautiful poetry, which I’m sure the audience will be able to like, relate to in terms of looking back on past relationships or just looking back on times you’ve felt loved and then feeling the absence of that.

WILLIAM TONG: That’s Bienen junior Mya Vandegrift, the show’s director and choreographer.

[Clip of “forsake me”]

WILLIAM TONG: Yang said that’s the “emotional climax” of the opera, the song “forsake me.” It’s about the loss, abandonment and forsakenness their characters feel after Jesus died.

ISABEL YANG: We aren’t ashamed that we’ve devoted our lives to this person. We aren’t necessarily regretful. I think we’re just extremely hurt and, in a way, feeling betrayed.

WILLIAM TONG: Those feelings of loss might also resonate with audience members, Bienen alum Seth Lauver (Bienen ’23) said. Lauver plays vibraphone in the opera.

SETH LAUVER: It’s just a story about being like, changed by someone else, and like, especially when someone who is so important to you leaves your life, and you kind of feel like you have to change everything again.

WILLIAM TONG: To enhance these portrayals of loss and abandonment, Olszewski incorporated live reverb and delay effects, which she said are becoming more prominent in modern opera. It sounds like this.

[Reverb effect]

WILLIAM TONG: The show will run at 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, at the Ryan Opera Theater. No tickets are required.

Olszewski said the opera cautions against excessive devotion. Salvation arrives for the two Marys when they realize the extremity of their sacrifices.

CECE OLSZEWSKI: That realization is what gets them to heaven — that decision to completely abandon all devotion for this man and channel it into themselves, and into each other.

[singing fade in]

WILLIAM TONG: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m William Tong. Thanks for listening to another episode of Sound Source. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Anita Li, the digital managing editors are Ashley Lee and Micah Sandy, and the editor in chief is Avani Kalra. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @william2tong

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