Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.

Sound Bites: Rene Orth

The American composer breaks new ground.
by Adam Wasserman 

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Photograph by Dario Acosta
Hair and Makeup by Affan Graber Malik for Tom Ford Beauty
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Composer Rene Orth, currently in residence at Opera Philadelphia
© Dario Acosta

RENE ORTH writes music that bridges the gap between acoustic and electronic, industrial and lyrical, cutting edge and classical. Yet composing didn’t initially seem to be in the cards for the Garland, Texas native, who is now in her second year in Opera Philadelphia’s composer-in-residence program. “I say this a little sheepishly, but I hated opera before,” says Orth, laughing. She planned to study business and Chinese at Rhodes College in Memphis until she discovered that a minor in music would allow her to continue the piano lessons she had taken since she was a child. Composition lessons during her junior year opened the door further, and after college Orth was accepted into the University of Louisville via a fellowship tailored to writing for the dramatic voice. “That’s where my love for opera began and my seriousness as a composer took off,” she says. “I took voice lessons, and I hung out with a lot of singers. I think understanding a voice is a really, really tricky thing that maybe composers don’t take time to do.” In 2013, Orth entered the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Mikael Eliasen, Jennifer Higdon and Richard Danielpour. 

At the moment, Orth is focused on workshopping her chamber opera Machine, written with playwright/librettist Jason Kim (also a writer for HBO’s Girls). The opera focuses on Nina, an Asian–American scientist who agrees to have a chip implanted in her brain in a disastrous attempt to become a perfect, emotionless human. Inspired by the growing critical discourse around the presentation of “works like The Mikado and presenting yellowface onstage,” Orth says she was keenly aware of “the burden of responsibility of putting Asians onstage and giving them roles that represent a different perspective than what the opera world usually sees.” 

Orth’s writing makes ample use of electronic soundscapes—she took a postgrad course in audio engineering—but it’s clear that she only considers technology a means to a compositional end. “When involving electronics, my number-one fear is that they don’t work the first time,” she says. “Going back to the unique instrument of a single singer—everyone has something really great to offer. It’s my job to exploit that and really show them off. Essentially, all I care about is moving someone emotionally.” spacer 

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