The opera’s world premiere focuses on Katharine Wright, the famous brothers’ sister
When the two visited Woodland Cemetery, they stopped at the graves of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Buried between the famous brothers was a grave bearing the name of Katharine Wright Haskell.
“We looked at each other and asked, ‘Who was Katharine Wright? “, Clawson recalled. “There was a sister? They had a sister?
These initial questions took them on a journey that began with Google and ended with a completed opera. “We researched Katharine Wright and after reading her story I turned to Andrea and said Katharine’s story was lyrical, especially her efforts to defend her brothers’ work and find love more later in life,” Clawson recalled. The two discovered that it was Katharine who facilitated the success of her renowned siblings when Wilbur and Orville were so focused on the job itself. “They weren’t really able to articulate it or describe it for ordinary people to understand,” notes Clawson, “so Katharine became their spokesperson. She put aside any aspirations she might have had to focus on promoting the work of her brothers.
Clawson and Fineberg learned that Katharine had lost her mother when she was 15. Although she attended Oberlin College, she essentially became the wife of the Wright household, taking care of the family. Along with losing her mother, she suffered other tragedies: the deaths of her father and Wilbur. The plot thickens when, at the age of 51, Katharine’s relationship with her old college friend, Harry Haskell, turns into romance. The relationship did not go well with Orville, who felt betrayed. He refused to attend his sister’s wedding and cut all ties with the couple. “Two years after her wedding, Katharine contracted pneumonia,” Clawson explains. “Orville finally came to see her, arriving on her deathbed just as she was dying…very lyrical.”
Go to work
Fast forward a few years. Thomas Bankston, then artistic director of the Dayton Opera, was visiting Clawson at the Santa Fe Opera this summer and the women pitched their idea for an opera centered on Katharine Wright. He liked the concept and decided to commission the piece for two special upcoming anniversaries: Dayton Opera’s 60th anniversary and his own 25th season with the company. Due to the pandemic, it was decided to postpone the premiere to 2022.
“We didn’t want it to be a biopic,” Clawson explains. “We wanted to connect modern times to Katharine’s story, so we decided to introduce a modern character who could deal with hardships like Katharine did and explore what she learns from Katharine. “Finding Wright” therefore traces two parallel stories: one of Katharine Wright and the other of Charlotte (Charlie) Tyler, a 21st century aerospace engineer and academic who mourns her thwarted career and the recent loss of her husband.
The opera oscillates between Katharine Wright in the early 1900s and Charlie Tyler today. At her husband’s funeral, Charlie discovers Katharine’s grave, begins to explore the past through Katharine, and finds her own path forward.
Meet the production team
To develop the music for the opera, Clawson and Fineberg approached composer Laura Kaminsky to compose the score. Kaminsky was quoted in The Washington Post as “one of the top 35 female classical music composers”.
“Laura’s opera ‘As One’ is the most performed contemporary opera in the United States right now,” says Clawson. “She is highly respected and a wonderful songwriter.”
Fineberg, the librettist, has been with the Santa Fe Opera for over 30 years. She has also worked with the Academy for the Love of Learning Lifesongs, writing original musical stories with people in palliative care since 2007.
Susan Sheston, who will conduct the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for “Finding Wright”, is currently Santa Fe Opera Chorus Director and has collaborated with many of the world‘s leading opera and symphony conductors.
As a playwright, Clawson helped create the drama of the work.
take the stage
Making her Dayton Opera debut, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert will sing the historic role of Katharine Wright. Known as a singer actress, she has received critical acclaim for her interpretations of new and traditional music in opera, concert and chamber repertoire. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms makes her Dayton Opera debut as Charlie Tyler.
Baritone Sean Anderson will play Harry Haskell, Katharine’s love interest and future husband. He was classically trained for the Shakespearean stage and appears in opera, musical theater and classical drama.
Tenors Dominic Armstrong and Christian Sanders will play Orville and Wilbur Wright.
A fortuitous surprise
Last summer, out of the blue, Clawson received an email from a man named Harry Haskell, who turned out to be the grandson of Katharine Wright’s husband.
“Imagine my surprise when I lived and breathed this opera with one of the key characters being Harry Haskell,” she says. “He had written a book, ‘Maiden Voyage’, about Katharine Wright! He had heard of our opera and wanted to know more.
Haskell plans to come to Dayton to see the opera.
“Despite being an exceptionally gifted member of an iconic American family, Katharine had to deal with many of the same trade-offs that women make today to balance the competing demands that society places on them,” Haskell notes. “In his case, the struggle was complicated by the agonizing, and ultimately irreconcilable, conflict between loyalty to Orville and love for Harry.
“To put it another way, she was torn between the Victorian values of her youth and the values of the modern world that her brothers helped create.”
Clawson says, “It’s a gripping Dayton story. It’s perfect even for those who have never been to an opera before.
How to get there:
What: “Finding Wright,” a world premiere presented by Dayton Opera.
When: 8 p.m. on Friday, February 25 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 27
Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton
Tickets: $5 to $100. Available at the box office at (937) 228-3630 or online at www.daytonperformingarts.org
Discounts for seniors, teachers and students are available.
Masks are mandatory for all guests over the age of six during the entire tour.
Associated programming: There will be a post-performance talk on stage at the Mead Theater on Friday February 25th only, directly after the performance, which is open to all ticket holders. The creation team and several singers will be there to talk about the creation of this opera.