Award-winning soprano and alumna, Christine Steyer, ‘90 performed at Knox this Sunday alongside pianist Tim Pahel and cellist Anne Suda.
The hour long program consisted of music from classical Western composers alongside works that she produced for her upcoming opera, Future Perfect, a modern tale drawn from the writings of about 1,300 students attending Chicago schools in underserved areas.
Steyer took a more nontraditional route towards music, graduating with a degree in Asian Studies and earning another degree in studio art in 1994. While not majoring in music, Steyer was always involved in music programs at Knox such as the choir and Nova Singers. Her motivation to consistently create and produce new works at Knox to her current projects of making operas with themes that are more relevant to people today.
“(I want to) make sure we are connecting with audiences who are always changing,” Steyer said.
While acknowledging the importance of traditional classical operas that audiences may usually associate them with, Steyer stresses the importance of creating work that is relevant and important to the current times.
“The new generation comes, the old generation goes,” she said.
This would lead to the creation of the Bellissima Opera Outreach, a Chicago-based youth program that brings music and art to classrooms in schools across the city. The program’s website says that it has worked with over 23,000 students.
Among the many pieces that Steyer performed on Sunday, two of them were pieces from her latest project, The Transcendence Triptych, created alongside composer David Shenton.
The work is comprised of three individual operas titled Future Perfect, Outside the Ring and Reconciliation, all focused on the central theme of transcendence and perseverance.
Outside the Ring is based on a true story of two boxers: Max Schmeling, who was German, and Joe Louis, who was African American. They fought each other in the late 1930’s amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany and ongoing racism in America. Despite the political connotations of their fight, they would later become close friends, dubbed as a “friend and foe.”
Reconciliation was initially based on a story that Steyer had heard of a woman who had forgiven a man who killed her whole family during the Apartheid era in South Africa. While researching this story though she was met with a twist. The story was actually more of an urban legend, but after others found out about her endeavor in this matter, she was sent many other stories of similar themes that had actually happened.
“Regardless of what religion you were, what race you were, (they were) stories of people that found the power of love and forgiveness more powerful than the emotion of hate,” Steyer said.
Finally, Future Perfect is a work that may hold the most relevance today. She wanted to get students involved in this project that would still maintain the central theme of transcendence.
In 2014, Steyer began bringing singers, poets and artists into classrooms for creative workshops. These consisted of generating any work of writing around a theme picked at that time, for example a color or a phrase. Steyer found that many students would flourish with these exercises, and even recalls a teacher claiming a student had never spoken during class yet presented a vulnerable writing piece to all his peers.
“I felt very strongly that (music) is often an alternative to violence, especially working in neighborhoods where self expression is not encouraged, it feels like it’s unmanly for the boys,” Steyer said.
Many of the student’s writing featured themes of violence and fear. Steyer recalls one writing exercise that highlighted the inner turmoil of many of the students she worked with.
“There were choices of seven different colors they could pick (…) The kids that wrote red, it was all over the place — half of it was the most beautiful idea of red and then half of it was just horrible,” she said.
This theme of red was displayed at the Knox recital, where she performed a piece called “Red is a Trick” from Future Perfect. It featured chilling lyrics such as “Red lights flashing, killed by our neighbors, killed by our ‘saviors’.”
Though dealing with somber themes, Steyer ultimately wanted to create something that would be important and meaningful. The opera consisted of writings from 1,300 youth in Chicago, with minor edits for a comprehensive storyline. The project that began in 2014 will reach its completion this June when it s,featuring excerpts from Outside the Ring and Reconciliation.
Steyer continues to break boundaries in classical music and continues to strive for innovative work that will touch the audience.
“It’s very important to break that fourth wall,” Steyer said.