As recently as five days ago, Gity Razaz hadn’t met the woman who penned the poem to which Razaz’s newest song is set. Save for a handful of emails, the two hadn’t spoken, either.
Shara McCallum, who wrote “Lucea, Jamaica” as part of her newest book of poetry Madwoman, doesn’t see the lack of formal introduction as a problem.
“That’s the beautiful thing about one art responding to another,” said McCallum, Chautauqua Writers’ Center’s Week One poet-in-residence. “It’s a conversation between the two artists, whether they’re in the same room or not.”
At 3:15 p.m. Friday in the Athenaeum Parlor, Razaz, the Chautauqua Opera Company’s composer-in-residence, and McCallum will be in the same room for the season’s first Afternoon of Song Recital. Everyone in attendance will hear the world premiere of Razaz’s setting of McCallum’s poem, performed by Chautauqua Opera Young Artist soprano Tookah Sapper.
When Razaz first read Madwoman, she didn’t think “Lucea” would inspire a song, but with a second reading, the poem spoke to her in a very specific way.
Razaz left her native Iran with her mother and sister when she was 15 years old, moving to the United States. McCallum, fleeing civil strife, emigrated from her home country of Jamaica when she was 8 years old.
“That’s the common ground for us,” McCallum said. “We’re both immigrant women.”
While McCallum has since returned to Jamaica, Razaz has never traveled back to Iran. And she doesn’t know if she ever will. Nevertheless, “Lucea” (pronounced “Lucy”) made Razaz think about the memories she has of Iran and about whether those memories are real.
“I have memories of specific places and things, and I wonder if I go back to that same place 20 years later …?” Razaz said.
She wonders about seeing a place that has existed in a certain way in her mind for so long, of “maybe feeling a bit of a shock because it’s so drastically different than your memories of the same place. I was very touched by the poem and thought it would make sense for this intimate setting.”
That closeness also affords audience members the chance to meet this season’s Young Artist singers on a more personal level.
“Intimate settings allow us to create this visceral emotion for people who otherwise might not have experienced this,” said baritone Blake Jennings, who will join Sapper and mezzo-soprano soprano Megan Grey in performing at the recital.
Chautauqua Opera vocal Coach Emily Jarrell Urbanek will accompany the singers on piano.
Grey, who is returning for her second year as a studio artist with the Young Artist Program, is glad to come back to a place that fosters such a strong sense of community.
“One thing that stuck with me from last summer was how personal the entire summer was, with all the performances and interactions with the community,” Grey said.
For Sapper, the chance to perform in a scaled-down setting for a smaller crowd is a chance to remove the wall between audience and singer.
“Having such an intimate venue and getting to collaborate with each other … they’ll get to see who we are as individual artists,” Sapper said. “Then they’ll see us onstage and have more of a personal connection to who we are and what we can do.”
Razaz and McCallum already have that connection by virtue of Razaz’s work. It is a connection born of individual elements — the notes of the composer and the words of the poet — supporting one another to become something greater.
Regardless of whether they’ve spent time together, Razaz and McCallum — the composer and the poet — are connected in a way that, come Friday afternoon, yields a sum much greater than its parts.
“In isolation, music is its own beauty. Language is its own beauty,” McCallum said. “But putting them together hopefully creates something that neither of us as artists could do on our own.”