The Knock – an Opera

I have written three operas: The Knock (2020), commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera Festival, Abraham in Flames (2019) commissioned by N Talebi Projects and premiered in San Francisco in 2019 and Mileva (2011) commissioned by the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad and premiered during its 150th Anniversary season.

The Knock, my most recent opera tells a story of a group of military wives, whose husbands are fighting in Fallujah. They gather together because of rumors about a possible incident on the war front. As the women await word about what has taken place, a young Army officer drives across the western plains to deliver them the news. A sixty minute opera for three soloists, a chorus, and a chamber orchestra, The Knock takes the audience into the lives of America’s military spouses, a group not yet seen on the opera stage.

Music by Aleksandra Vrebalov. Libretto by Deborah Brevoort. Stage direction Alison Moritz. Music direction Lidiya Yankovskaya.

About The Knock

Questions by Glimmerglass Festival, January 2021

-What is your show about?

The Knock is an opera about military wives receiving a death notice.  It’s a fascinating world – pretty much hermetic, hidden from the outsiders, driven by protocols.  Suffering and heroism, sacrifice and privilege, personal and public sphere, joy and sorrow – all coexist in extremes.  I grew up in a family of WWII heroes, my dad is a WWII orphan, the only child of my grandparents, who both died fighting fascists.  I grew up having a strong sense of pride for being from a family of patriots, heroes who gave their lives for the country. At the same time there was so much personal, behind-the-scenes grief that marked the family because of the loss of lives.  While writing the Knock I wanted both aspects to be honored – the public, stately side – heroic sacrifice, along with what happens on the inside – the rawness of a personal loss.

-Why do you think this is an important story to tell in 2021?

I believe that any story that inspires us or concerns us as awake citizens is an important story to tell. Its relevant because it deals with our values, with what’s important to us.  In this case, it is the friction between patriotism and personal loss, the topic itself, the cost of war.  But for me, it is also about the families who make sacrifices.  Sometimes I would be asked as a composer – who do you write for, is there some imaginary audience you’re addressing. And most often I wouldn’t  have an audience in my mind while I write music.  While writing the Knock, however I was surprised how many times I thought of military wives and families sitting in the audience.  I felt the privilege of being their voice, to express in public the emotion of loss, also of strength and resilience.  If for anyone, I wrote the piece FOR them and I did my best to be a just, sensitive, responsible medium.  

-Why does this story need to be told as an opera piece? 

Opera – drama in music – is an adequate medium to contain and express the wide range of intense emotion that our story carries. I actually cannot think of a more perfect form for this story to be told – opera does its magic both through the language, verbal language AND music.  The sound of music unlocks our ability to feel and make emotional connections in more immediate, non verbal ways.  So we can have insights, heal, relate to reality in a more profound way.

-Have you learned anything interesting as part of the process of researching / writing this piece? Has anything surprised you?

I learned about the power of protocol in the military.  The Knock is really driven by the protocol – its’ not a random set of events.  The protocol gave it a structure, but then like in life, the emotion seeps through it and makes it personal.  Deborah did so much research and spent time with women, the military wives — it felt in the libretto there were real people.  Working on the Knock was very emotional for me.  Maybe also because it entirely coincided with the pandemic and the quarantine. I’ve been by myself, with no distraction and steeped in the feelings of my characters. 

Has anything surprised you?

What surprised me most is that I realized at some point along the way that I actually believe that The Knock, as dark as it is, can be a soothing, vibrant experience.  I still believe that.   

History with Glimmerglass:

I was the first Douglass Moore composition fellow almost 20 years ago and spent the summer at Glimmerglass learning about nuts and bolts of opera. I fell in love with the opera house in the fields, I was present at all rehearsals of Mines of Sulphur as an observer, I stayed over in Cherry Valley.  I remember white rocking chairs on the veranda of the Otesaga hotel – it was so elegant and so American. Twenty years later,  I am American too, and my connection to opera only deepened since those days, I have written three so far.  I had hoped back then that one day I might be back with my own work.  In so many ways, this is a dream come true, and I am very grateful for it. (Aleksandra Vrebalov)

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