Associate Professor of Music Mark Olivieri has been commissioned by a consortium of groups including the acclaimed Society of New Music to compose an opera on the life of American blues and folk musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1893-1987). The libretto will be written by Kyle Bass, an instructor at Syracuse University and an award-winning playwright.
A self-taught musician from North Carolina who spent much of her life working as a housekeeper, Cotten composed her best-known song “Freight Train” as a teenager. “There’s an honesty about her music,” says Olivieri, who joined the HWS faculty in 2010. “She was a self-taught musician who wove her experiences as a person of color living in the South at a very difficult time in U.S. history into her music.”
Cotten came to public attention while she was working for the family of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, whose son, Mike Seeger, did recordings of Cotten performing her songs, which later became the album “Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar.” Her music has been performed by musicians including Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, and late in her life, she toured with musicians including Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
Currently, Olivieri and Bass are in discussions on shaping the opera, which will debut in spring of 2020. “I’m still learning about her,” says Olivieri. “Perhaps the most challenging thing for me as a composer is how to balance my original music with the fact that we’re creating a piece about a musician. How much of her music, if any, do we use?”
In 2014, Olivieri composed a piece titled “Libba” for piano and flute that emulated Cotten’s singing and playing style. “I tried to reproduce her guitar picking style on piano,” he says. “The flute emulated a bluesy vocal delivery and I imagined it as an improvisatory Appalachian jam.”
That experience, says Olivieri, made him eager to take on a more extended work about the musician. “When they asked me to do the opera, I thought this sounded like an amazing project. Kyle and I are really looking forward to making this come to light and telling a story around her,” he says.
Olivieri earned a B.M. degree from Heidelberg College, an M.M. from Ithaca College Music Conservatory, and his Ph.D. from The University of Buffalo. His commissions include works for the Rothko Piano Trio, the Society for New Music, Trio Medellín, the Golden Gate Brass Ensemble, and the Porto Alegre New Music Ensemble of Brazil.
The Society for New Music is a Syracuse-based music advocacy organization. In addition to commissioning the work of upstate-based composers, the Society acts as a catalyst for the growth of the Central New York musical community, recognizing young composers in New York State, using traditional and social media to promote new music, and sponsoring performances.