An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Transforming Opera to Draw in New Audiences

  • Katherine J. Igoe

A new space race grips the world. Three astronauts— American, Russian, and Chi­nese—land on Mars. They must develop trust and work together … because a Mar­tian is coming for them.

This plot is the basis of an opera conceived by Grethe Barrett Holby ’71, MArch ’73, who is pioneering an American opera move­ment designed to bring origi­nal works to new audiences.

As a student, Holby founded the inaugural Dance Lab, which performed in McCormick Hall, and cho­reographed her first ballet, which featured dancers mov­ing through a laser sculp­ture. She also danced with the Boston Ballet, learned set design at Harvard, and found time to take MIT aero/ astro classes as she got her degrees in architecture. “MIT allowed me to do my art,” she says. “No one said my ideas were risky or too com­plicated. I just signed out the equipment and did it.”

Convinced that new opera needed new physi­cal spaces to flourish, Holby founded New York’s Ameri­can Opera Projects in 1988.

After graduation, she col­laborated as a dancer and choreographer with vision­aries like Leonard Bernstein and was an originating cast member of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach in 1976. She began creating her own dance pieces and choreographing and directing for opera com­panies. In 1984 she directed the Opera Company of Phila­delphia’s production of Gou­nod’s Faust.

Convinced that new opera needed new physi­cal spaces to flourish, Holby founded New York’s Ameri­can Opera Projects in 1988 and directed 25 operas there. She launched the Fam­ily Opera Initiative in 1995 for multi-generational audiences and, in 2006, started Ardea Arts to foster new works.

Holby’s space opera, called The 3 Astronauts: The Race to Mars, was inspired by her experience of read­ing Umberto Eco’s The Three Astronauts to her daughter when she was a child. She collaborated with US, Rus­sian, and Chinese artists on the project and is now searching for a producer.

Meanwhile, her recently premiered Bounce: The Bas­ketball Opera tackles issues like gun violence and pov­erty. Like many of her works, it involved collaboration with some or all of her fam­ily: her husband, photogra­pher Arthur Elgort, and their children—filmmaker Warren Elgort, photographer Sophie Elgort, and actor/musician Ansel Elgort.

Holby is aiming to “share serious music and a serious, but accessible, story with a huge unserved audience,” she says. “This brings two disparate worlds together that now don’t even touch. It’s a transformative experi­ence; our goal is to perform Bounce on basketball courts around the country and beyond.”

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