Published: May 31, 2024 By

Table Read of “Polly Peachum” with the full cast, composer Gene Scheer and librettist Bill Van Horn.Photos: Table Read of “Polly Peachum” with the full cast, composer Gene Scheer and librettist Bill Van Horn.

It’s an old cliché, but the image of great oaks-from-little acorns really does apply to CU NOW, the CU Boulder College of Music’s successful summer opera workshop that launched its 14th season on our campus this week running through June 16.

First, we should spell out its full title: New Opera Workshop. It’s a unique program that began with a modest, acorn-like suggestion in 2009, recalls founder/artistic director Leigh Holman.

“I was at an opera conference here [Boulder] and was visiting with composer Hershel Garfein,” says Holman, who also directs the college’s Eklund Opera Program. “He suggested the idea of young artists working on new works with their composers. It turns out young singers just loved sampling new music. I knew it would also be a wonderful experience for the composers since they could be here to work on their music.”

CU NOW debuted in 2010, becoming the nation’s first such program based at an academic institution, designed to bring together student singers and renowned composers in rehearsing and performing a new opera—all in three weeks. Since then, the likes of composers Mark Adamo, Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer, Libby Larsen, Mark Campbell, Garfein and Tom Cipullo have participated.  

This year’s workshop brings together Gene Scheer—returning to CU NOW as guest composer, alongside collaborating librettist Bill Van Horn—and 14 auditioned CU Boulder graduate student singers, plus a trio of grad and undergrad composers as well as Eklund Opera Program staff. Emmy Award winner Gary Fry—arranger for “Polly Peachum”—will be in residence during the final week of the workshop as a resource for both our voice and composition students.

Table Read of “Polly Peachum” with the full cast, composer Gene Scheer and librettist Bill Van Horn.Participants are rehearsing six days a week on “Polly Peachum," a rollicking romantic musical comedy set in the early 1700s that depicts the intertwining worlds of government intrigue, London criminal life and the world of theatre. If the name in the title rings a bell, she’s a character in English composer John Gay’s 1728  hit “The Beggar’s Opera.” 

“Gene wrote it with Bill about a decade ago and they recently reworked it,” explains Holman. The story concerns the creation of that old tale of London street life and lists characters such as Mr. Gay and historical figures Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Robert Walpole—and Ms. Peachum herself. 

“Our work is underway,” says CU NOW Music Director Nicholas Carthy of the new opera with old characters, staged in less than a month. The British-born conductor—music director of the Eklund Opera Program—joined CU NOW in 2023. He notes that he anticipates only “a few tiny adjustments” will be made to the score once Scheer and Van Horn observe rehearsals. 

For the student singers, this marks their first true professional operatic experience. And for Carthy? “I’m prepared for whatever.”

But wait, there’s more to CU NOW: Running simultaneously with “Polly Peachum” is the Composers’ Fellow Initiative (CFI) which occurs every other year alongside CU NOW. Three student composers who had expressed interest in writing opera were chosen to participate in the program, directed by Bud Coleman. The trio—Alan Mackwell, Holly McMahon and Joshua Maynard—have been working with New York-based composer Tom Cipullo, creating music and librettos for 10-minute opera scenes that are being rehearsed, staged and costumed for a performance on June 15.

Holman said plans have already been made for CU NOW 2025: Mark Adamo will return with “Sarah,” a new work about famed Boston-based opera conductor Sarah Caldwell. 

“Polly Peachum” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 14 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 16. Scenes by the Composer Fellows’ Initiative will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 15. Free and open to the public, all performances will be held in our Music Theatre. More info at CU Presents.