Above: Scene from “Così fan tutte,” performed by DC Public Opera and directed by Jennifer Williams in 2015. Photo courtesy of DC Public Opera.
It has been said that music is the world’s only true international language. It is one with the ability to communicate any singular feeling from the universally shared range of human emotion through sound. Fulbright alumni Jennifer Williams and Dana Kaufman, both recipients of a Fulbright grant in the creative and performing arts, are real life examples of this. Both Fulbrighters came away from their international experiences in the operatic arts with not only a reborn appreciation for this centuries-old medium, but also with new ways to transcend its traditional boundaries in order to best reimagine its uses and tell very modern stories.
Jennifer Williams received her undergraduate degree in operatic stage instruction at the University of Chicago. Later, looking to broaden her professional horizons, she went on to the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany as a Fulbright grantee in opera stage direction. Being in Germany gave her a new view of being a performer, as she observed that German audiences often had a different set of expectations of operatic performances than Americans, as opera is a central part of German culture. Speaking of her time as a performer in Berlin, she pointed out how thirsty German audiences were for a “fresh take” on the operatic works that they knew so well.
Dana Kaufman, who received her BA in music and Russian from Amherst College, was a Fulbright Research fellow in ethnomusicology and composition, completing her fellowship at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater in Tallinn, Estonia. The experience abroad not only gave her the chance to hone her skills in the Estonian language, but also made her appreciate how important music is to Estonian culture. Through her participation in an Estonian choir, she learned how Estonia’s choral tradition played a big part in the nation achieving its independence from the USSR. Being in Estonia, a nation rife with racial tensions, also enriched her understanding of how tricky it can be to navigate the intricacies of such an environment when addressing them in artistic work.
Both artists’ experiences abroad inspired them to approach their craft in original ways. As Williams puts it, her Fulbright experience took her to Germany during a “timely moment of cultural exchange,” a time when many companies began coming up with and performing more original and alternative productions and untraditional versions of beloved classic works. This experience forced her to push the boundaries of her imagination, which is apparent in the works that are performed by the opera company she founded in Washington, D.C., the DC Public Opera. Known for its site-specific performance installations that are held in venues all around the city, Williams’ work is unique in how it integrates the elements of her productions and blends them with the distinct character of the venues her works are performed in. One of the company’s most successful productions was a 21st century reimagining of the political drama “Don Giovanni” performed in the Mayflower Hotel, a venue steeped in history in its own right. As director, Williams brought innovation to the stage by making sure that the audience was an interactive part of the production and having her performers directly address and implicate them during the climactic party scene.
Kaufman, too, has taken a fresh approach to the genre. In her case, she used her time in Tallinn to compose pieces used the typical sounds of the city in atypical ways. In one piece, Kaufman used two popular jingles, known to most Estonians as the tunes played on the overhead speaker system of Tallinn’s biggest mall, to compose a piece that was presented and well-received at numerous festivals in both America and Estonia. “It felt great to reach an audience and to incorporate a bit of everyday life in Tallinn” into her work, she shares. As part of her doctoral dissertation, Kaufman wrote a one-act opera called Opera Kardashian, which is about “tragedy, dystopia, and the human condition as told by the Kardashians.” Inspired by a time she happened upon her roommate watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” Kaufman realized that the dramatic nature of the family recalled the opera characters she had spent her academic career studying, and got to work.
Williams and Kaufman both consider their Fulbright experience formative in giving them the opportunity to learn how to truly harness their original voices as artists. “I had to take risks daily concerning what language I chose to speak, how I lived, who I interacted with,” says Kaufman, an experience which she credits with teaching her how to take calculated risks as she learned to look out for how “sociopolitical tensions manifest in a sonic way.” For Williams, “The experience of working in the international scene enabled me to understand differences. I’m a better collaborator and a better colleague. In addition, it also pushed the boundaries of my imagination,” as being in a place where opera was “part of the zeitgeist, part of the language, and part of the culture” helped her understand that art is truly a conversation. And through enjoying both Williams and Kaufman’s work, audiences are sure to learn that the story an opera can tell far surpasses the words being sung as well.