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New work, new audiences for innovative School of Music project

January 19, 2012 By Susannah Brooks

Jerry Hui could probably make his audience enjoy a root canal.

Since his days as an undergraduate, the composer and conductor has thrived on making unexpected connections between classical music and Madison audiences. Hui’s early music group Eliza’s Toyes performed amidst the Memorial Library stacks; a recent performance of his own work involved a guided installation inspired by Virginia Woolf.

Photo: Wired for Love

A scene from “Wired for Love,” making its world premiere Jan. 20-21.

“I’m not excited just by ‘exposing’ people to classical music; that’s a verb I always want to avoid,” says Hui. “But I think we can define stronger bonds between the audience and music they don’t really know.”

Through the creation of new work, the composer, performers and audiences can move through unfamiliar territory together. Hui’s dissertation project — an opera about Nigerian email scammers — has united students, alumni and colleagues, demonstrating the strength of UW–Madison’s musical community.

The world premiere of Hui’s opera “Wired for Love” takes place on Friday, Jan. 20 and Saturday, Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. in the Carol Rennebohm Auditorium of Music Hall, 925 Bascom Mall. Tickets are $15, available at the door and online.

In lieu of pre-concert lectures, the ever-resourceful Hui has arranged two fraud prevention seminars, both at 7 p.m. On Friday, UW Credit Union’s Julie Walser presents “Fraud Awareness and Prevention” in the Mosse Humanities Building’s Morphy Hall. On Saturday, DoIT’s Monica Bush presents “FYI…TMI: Protecting Your Identity” in the Memorial Union (TITU).

Hui hopes to hook audiences with something familiar to everyone.

“Those all-caps emails are universal,” he says, with a grin. “And money! No one can safely say they’re not connected with money.”

Though his subject might seem contemporary, the opera’s themes resemble some of the oldest stories in the world. The four characters fall into archetypal categories: a trickster, a pair of young lovers. The characters might write from behind a computer screen, but their story is straight out of legend: a classic tale of hidden and assumed identities.

Of course, ancient myths probably didn’t involve a snake-dancing supermodel named Ethel Wormvarnish.

“We need to find different emotional hooks. You have to tell the audience why they should come to a place they’d never really come to, sit down and be quiet for an hour or more.”

Jerry Hui

Ironically, the outlandish names and backstories come from real events. Hui found the story in 2004 while browsing the Web. Over a series of 40 emails, a “scammer” and a “baiter” each assumed new online identities (a white Zimbabwean farmer and the aforementioned supermodel, respectively) in hopes of goading the other into sending money. All Hui had to do was come up with an equally dramatic ending.

“The original correspondence had lots to offer: wild character background, war, murder, romance, and so much more,” says Hui.

Working with Lisa Kundrat, a poet who completed her MFA in creative writing, Hui combed through the correspondence. Kundrat took a formulaic email from the scammer and crossed out unnecessary portions to form an even more formulaic rondeau, a French form of poetry. The two set the words to music reminiscent of Bach and the Baroque era.

“Throughout my studies, I’ve done extremes — early music and new music,” he says. “Writing this piece brings all these experiences back together.”

Upstairs from concert manager Rick Mumford’s office, “Wired for Love” rehearses on the same Music Hall stage used for elaborate UW Opera performances.

“Whenever any of our ensembles do premieres, there’s a certain energy knowing that these works didn’t exist five years ago,” says Mumford.

Hui’s production gives fellow students and alumni experience staging all aspects of a professional production, from performing newly composed music to directing the stage action.

“These kinds of projects are almost like labs, with the opportunity to be involved with something from the ground up,” says Mumford. “But it also creates a sense of pride for the work of your peers. We’re seeing the bridging of the educational experience — everything from undergraduates to recent DMAs who are in tenure-track positions.”

Jennifer Sams, a mezzo-soprano who received her DMA in May of 2011, serves as the production’s stage director and plays the role of Ethel. The demanding score requires a range so wide that “I don’t even put some of these notes on my resume,” she says, but she forges ahead anyway.

“Participating in these productions is what you do to be a good colleague,” says Sams. “Otherwise, what’s going to happen to the music world when we don’t support new composers?”

“UW-Madison is one school that lets students take on their own adventures, being creative and taking the helm.”

Jennifer Sams

The production has kept her in touch with friends and colleagues in the same boat. Conductor Ching-Chun Lai, also a recent alumna, now teaches at SUNY-Potsdam; countertenor Peter Gruett (Okoro) graduated several years ago. Baritone James Held (British Guy) is an undergraduate, while tenor Daniel O’Dea (Bako) will soon begin his doctoral work.

The School of Music has provided an unusual level of support for innovative student works, from Hui’s flash mob-style performances to outreach in schools and hospitals. Sams specifically cites Keith Hampton, assistant director of the School of Music, for his work integrating students into the Madison community.

“UW-Madison is one school that lets students take on their own adventures, being creative and taking the helm,” says Sams. “When prospective students come to look at our doctoral and master’s programs, seeing these projects gives them ideas for the kinds of jobs they could get into, the ways they can inspire younger musicians.”

The production hasn’t always gone smoothly. Rehearsal schedules may change on short notice; some pit musicians have dropped out, requiring a search for others who can handle the demands of Hui’s elaborate score. Hui himself has a background in choral performance and is just beginning to comprehend the complexities of adding movement, soloists and lighting.

But the juggling act is all part of what he, and others, may experience in the real world. As arts organizations face dwindling support, groups presenting unusual new works must take on multiple jobs and work even harder to bring in audiences.

“We need to find different emotional hooks,” says Hui. “You have to tell the audience why they should come to a place they’d never really come to, sit down and be quiet for an hour or more. That’s a huge commitment to ask of people who aren’t used to hearing that stuff.”

Bridging these gaps — between audiences and new works, between performers and their community — fuels everything Hui does. As he looks toward the next phase of his life, he values the connections he’s made while in Madison.

“If we can connect music to a broader cultural context, that’s great,” he says. “That can give a sense of why this music exists.”