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FWO Archives: Q&A with Jason Zencka - 'Voir Dire' featuring The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

The following article is a throwback from our 2017 Fort Worth Opera Festival program. This interview of librettist Jason Zencka will give you a behind the scenes look at the 2015 world premiere of Voir Dire. Read the full scene-by-scene synopsis HERE.

An Interview with Jason Zencka

Librettist Jason Zencka
Librettist Jason Zencka

A winner of the 2014 FWOpera Frontiers showcase, composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka’s explosive new opera, Voir Dire returns to the Festival stage this season for its world premiere. The opera is based on, and adapted from, true stories witnessed by Zencka during his time spent as a crime reporter while on assignment for the Stephen's Point Journal in Wisconsin, from January 2007 to June 2008. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term "voir dire," (“To see, to speak” in French) it refers to the preliminary questioning of prospective jurors by attorneys and a judge, to determine whether or not they'll be biased in their decision making.

Watch a sample of Voir Dire. Clip courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram YouTube archives.

Ryan Scott Lathan: You've worked as a newspaper reporter in Wisconsin, a criminal defense investigator in D.C. and I just read you're currently teaching high school English in Minneapolis. When did Matthew enter the frame, and how did the two of you decide you'd like to collaborate on a project together?

Composer Matthew Peterson by Peter Eriksson III
Composer Matthew Peterson by Peter Eriksson III

Jason Zencka: Matt and I were posted next to one another as freshmen at college in St. Olaf. We were neighbors, so that's where we actually met. We had worked on a chamber opera there called The Binding of Isaac, and it was a retelling of the Abraham and Isaac narrative on a survivalist camp in Montana. It was interesting, so we had done that together and Matt got ahold of me while I was in Wisconsin and said he wanted to do another project. The more we got to brainstorming, we ended up talking about my job (as a crime reporter).

RL: Do you have a musical background?

JZ: Sure, I play the French horn and the piano. Not a composition background, but as an instrumentalist growing up.

Listen to an exclusive WRR interview with David Gately, director, Viswa Subbaraman, conductor and Christina Pecce, soprano discussing the world premiere of The Fort Worth Opera’s Voir Dire. Listen to the interview HERE.

RL: The structure of Voir Dire's narrative plays out like snapshots or little vignettes and they seem to bounce back and forth from scene to scene. As you and Matthew were first crafting the arch of the libretto, when did you all decide you wanted to depart from the structure of a traditional operatic narrative?

JZ: Well, we kind of always talked about it as a collection of short stories rotating around a particular place, in part because that's just the structure of the court house. You get these truncated stories, one after the other, boom, boom, boom, where you feel like you get a glimpse of the carnage surrounding a person's soul, and then they're scurried off. Whether they are rescheduled or they have to make way for the name change hearing that comes after. So because of the staccato rhythm of that day to day grind that I was going to report, it seemed to lend itself more to that than a longer narrative - a more traditional Aristotelian narrative.

Mezzo-Soprano Anna Laurenzo as Alycia Simpson in the world premiere of 'Voir Dire'; Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera
Mezzo-Soprano Anna Laurenzo as Alycia Simpson in the world premiere of 'Voir Dire'; Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera

RL: I’ve read the score and listened to audio excerpts. I really loved the contrast between the dark humor, the brutal honesty, and those moments of quiet poignancy. Is there a particular scene throughout the opera that will always resonate with you?

JZ: One of the great things about working with a composer and working in opera, is that you're only responsible for so much of what's up there. When I got to see the group near Albany, up at Schroon Lake (Seagle Music Colony) a few years ago, perform a staged reading with some of these pieces, I felt as much like an audience member as a librettist. So many things that Matt and I argue about, talk about, and scream out, I don't really get to see for many years. These were just words on a page for so long, and I really got to see a lot of this for the first time.

During the reading of that performance, the duet between the character named Kalcek and his wife was very hard to watch. I liked how the last sustained "No," that drowns out all of the noise from his character, occurred before the sort of prattling, yelling, equivocating that came before. It's all blotted out by the power of that, "No". It's so hard for the character Julie Kalcek to sing. Getting to see the dramatics of that be so visceral on stage, was very powerful for me -being involved in a project where so much of other people's vision enhances the vision that I was looking at on the paper.

Listen to a Q&A interview from KERA's Arts & Seek. Take a moment to listen as soprano Anna Laurenzo sings her jailhouse aria. Listen to the interview HERE.

RL: How long have you been working on Voir Dire?

JZ: Oh man, it was a long time. We started it when we were 22 or 23, and then we had gone back to it and picked away at it over the course of about a decade. So, in some form or another it has existed for around 9 years, and it's been picked apart and put together again since then.

Christina Pecce and the company of 'Voir Dire' as The Mother's Ghost; Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera
Christina Pecce and the company of 'Voir Dire' as The Mother's Ghost; Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera

RL: You previously stepped onto the literary stage when your story “Catacombs” was published this past April, through the award-winning magazine One Story. I read you’ve been sketching out ideas for a novel and its sequel. How’s that coming along?

JZ: It's interesting that you asked about the format of the opera. So many of the written works that I'm drawn to are short stories or novels in stories, and it seems to be the way my mind works. I don't know if I'm more of a middle-distance runner than a long-distance runner [laughs], but I like putting together these mosaic stories, communities where you get to see people light up in other people's consciousness in this prismatic way. Those are the stories I read the most and the kind of stories I seem to be writing most. So, it's a novel in stories, and I think it’s going really well.

Kathy Morganson-Jones (Christina Pecce), her macaw (Trevor Martin), and a judge (Andrew Surrena); Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera
Kathy Morganson-Jones (Christina Pecce), her macaw (Trevor Martin), and a judge (Andrew Surrena); Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera

RL: Voir Dire was based on true stories you experienced as a crime reporter. Do you believe the trope “write about what you know” holds true and is constructive advice for blossoming writers and librettists?

JZ: Yeah, with the caveat that I feel like a lot of times you figure out what you know about yourself as you're writing. You take the time to revise, and you figure out, "Oh, I was operating under the impulse that this character was justifiable the whole time, but in fact he is a skunk. Or, the character was the villain, but in fact, she’s not. I didn't know what I thought I knew then, and I see I was trying to get at something I couldn't articulate at that point. It's nice to be able to look back at king of struggling, hair-pulling, younger writing and examine what you were doing there. So often you 're scratching an itch and you don't exactly know where it germinates.

The sold-out opera was even offered recently as a 2-disc album with the original cast - available through Kickstarter. However due to COVID, the release was postponed.
Check out the Kickstarter page HERE.

RL: Do you have any words of wisdom to impart for those writers who find themselves intrigued by the idea of venturing out into the world of opera?

JZ: It's like the relationship with a writer and an editor or I would imagine a director and a playwright. It's kind of like a marriage - pick someone you can fight with [laughs]. You talk to a couple and they're like, "Oh, we never fight." You think, oh you're in trouble [laughs]. Matt and I have been together long enough, and there's a binding love between us, such that we can say horrible things and regroup into the work productively the next day. With any collaborative art, I'd say it takes humility, and then you revise interpersonally and aesthetically as you go on.

Tenor Andrew Surrena as Timothy Kalcek in 'Voir Dire'; Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera
Tenor Andrew Surrena as Timothy Kalcek in 'Voir Dire'; Karen Almond, Fort Worth Opera

RL: Can we expect more collaborations between you and Matthew in the future?

JZ: I think so. We get together every few months to talk about our lives and spitball ideas, and we've always got one idea going back and forth that we're putting together or taking apart again. Catch us at the right tome and you’ll see a whole thing.

RL: A world premiere is always something to celebrate since it signifies to the world that the art form of opera is alive, thriving, and evolving. What do you think audiences can expect out of experiencing Voir Dire for the first time?

JZ: My hope is that the mix of opposites in the form that you see on the stage-between this quotidian, ugly prosaic language mixed with the high artifice of opera-will come through, because in my experience, that's what I felt in the courtroom. It was this strange mixture of the totally mundane and tedious with this eternal drama, this real, raw, human, pulpy feeling.

So that was the kind of chemistry experiment that Matt and I were working on at that time. To see how the mix of tones, languages, and tropes could create that feeling of a very specific location, which for me was this series of courtrooms in central Wisconsin. I hope that comes across on the stage in Fort Worth.

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