By Gianluca D’Elia
What does a young musician do when she needs experience but the opportunities to perform are sparse? When Elise Brancheau, ’10, found herself in this situation after finishing her master’s at Mannes School of Music, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Now, Brancheau is preparing to premiere an opera in New York City, where she once struggled to find work, as the co-artistic director of The Secret Opera, an independent opera company she co-founded.
Brancheau founded The Secret Opera with managing director Alexis Rodda and artistic director Chelsea Feltman in 2014 after the three friends finished their master’s degrees at Mannes. Now, the company not only creates opportunities for young performers, but also uses opera as a catalyst for social change.
“Whether it means producing works that focus on a relevant issue in our world, telling stories that aren’t often given a voice in mainstream media, or just using art to make people see things from a different perspective, we’re always trying to use our craft to connect people by encouraging empathy through art,” Brancheau said.
After building a reputation in New Jersey through its past seven performance seasons, The Secret Opera has created a new, unique production for its Spring 2016 season: “In Their Own Words,” three song cycles that highlight the lives and work of LGBT authors Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman and A.E. Housman.
As an artist, Brancheau said she felt a responsibility to “support works that feature voices, ideas and stories that are often suppressed or dismissed.”
“Take a look at any opera plot from any century — even this one — and you’ll see an overwhelming majority of straight, cis-gendered characters and relationships,” Brancheau explained. “It’s the same in mainstream literature, film, television, theater — you name it. While I think we’re slowly making strides in the right direction toward being more inclusive in the stories we tell, we still have a lot of work to do.
“We figured if we were going to put the effort into running an opera company, we wanted it to mean something, to be more than just a fun way to perform. There are plenty of opera companies that perform opera just for the sake of performing it, which is totally fine, but we wanted to do something different.”
Brancheau said she has Westminster to thank for the skills necessary for her job.
“Running an opera company, especially one that has only three staff members, is 100 percent a team effort,” Brancheau said. “Westminster taught me the essential skill of working on a team, of being part of an ensemble. Knowing how to work in a group and to support one another is crucial. Singing in a choir every day for four years straight really strengthens this skill, and it makes you used to relying on others in the best way.”
Brancheau said Westminster also prepared her for the amount of work it takes to run an opera company.
“Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I think, ‘Hey, I was able to manage the workload and the crazy schedule of Westminster — I can handle this,’” she joked.
Now, six years later, Brancheau is preparing to use the platform she has built through The Secret Opera to share a message of acceptance by bringing “In Their Own Words” to a Brooklyn stage.
“Though these writers are no longer living, their words are connected to the present day through the music of living composers,” Brancheau said. “We hope this will pay tribute not only to A. E. Housman, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf, but also to the countless others who, throughout history, have suffered and fought to get to where we are now, and those who continue this work today.”
Through her experiences in classical music, especially in Westminster’s choirs and with The Secret Opera, Brancheau learned the importance of sharing a message through song.
“Art has the power to make audiences feel empathy, to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “And that’s the first step in making the world a more loving and accepting place.”
“In Their Own Words” is premiering at the South Oxford Space in Brooklyn on Thursday, April 21 and Saturday, April 23 at 8 p.m.
Printed in the 4/13/16 edition.