Singing Operatic Praise for a Pew Fellow


Andrea Clearfield was enjoying a peaceful day at the Marble House Project.

“I’m sitting in a gazebo overlooking a stream, so I can’t complain,” she said with a laugh.

Clearfield was in Vermont at a three-week artists’ residency during a recent phone interview. While she was there to continue working on an opera three years in the making, as well as some other works, she also was celebrating a quite impressive feat.

Clearfield, who attends Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, was recently named one of 12 2016 Pew Fellows by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

“It’s very exciting for me and I feel so fortunate, first of all, to have the Pew Center here in Philadelphia supporting artists and art organizations in many disciplines,” she said, “and for me, it’s really exciting to be awarded this prestigious fellowship that will allow me to focus on my work and various projects.”

After completing an application process once she was nominated for the fellowship — though she doesn’t know who nominated her — she found out a few weeks ago that she won. She came back to Philadelphia from Vermont for an awards ceremony with the other fellows and grantees.

“The fellows and grantees were introduced, and it was really a beautiful way to start the fellowship, to meet everybody,” she said.

As a fellow, in addition to professional development, she was awarded a $75,000 prize, and has a few goals to complete with that.

One is to finish the orchestration of her first opera, which she has been working on for three years. Another is to begin a second opera in collaboration with Ellen Frankel, who may sound familiar as former CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society.

Opera is a new art form for Clearfield, who is well-known for her numerous compositions for orchestras and chamber ensembles. Some in the area may know her for her salon series at Main Line Reform Temple, which she has done for the past six years. She’s also curated a salon series in her own home for artists in Philadelphia for the past 30 years.

“I was feeling the next step for me as an artist,” she said, “would be to move to opera, as it’s a large-scale dramatic form, but it’s different because it’s staged and you’re working with a large artistic team. It’s the most collaborative of the art forms, and that was exciting to me as well.”

The opera she has been working on focuses on the life of Milarepa, an 11th century Tibetan poet and yogi.

The choice to focus on Milarepa in particular came about after she did field work in the Himalayas documenting Tibetan music for a commissioned piece back in 2008 and 2010.

“I started writing music that was inspired by these treks to a remote area of the Himalayas to do research for some commissioned work,” she recalled, “and then I also was involved with an anthropologist in documenting a repertoire of songs where there was only one man who knew these songs and was aging.”

After she returned, she happened to meet a writer and playwright named Jean-Claude van Itallie at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York — the Rubin Foundation funded some of the work she was doing in the Himalayas. He had just finished a libretto on the life of who else but the person Clearfield was interested in writing an opera about, Milarepa.

“It seemed very auspicious that moment we came together and met each other,” she said.

Now, she is working on the composition and scoring of the opera, which she is doing with van Itallie and Lois Walden.

She attended the first workshop of the opera just last week, and it was her first time hearing the work with singers. It was, naturally, hard to describe how she felt.

“As I’m composing, I’m filled with this music for years and then to finally hear it sung by incredible opera singers, it was like giving birth to something,” she said. “It was emotional and thrilling.”

From that workshop, she’s been making some revisions in the score and then will begin the orchestration process for the accompanying chamber orchestra. The commissioners hope the piece will be done in a few years, with an estimated premiere in New York City in 2018.

And once she’s done this one, she’ll start working on a whole new one with Frankel — with whom she has previously collaborated on a cantata about women in the Bible — that she said will be “completely different” as it will be a chamber opera, which doesn’t use a full orchestra.

“I find this art form exciting and challenging,” Clearfield said. “All kinds of operas are being created in all kinds of forms, from large scale to small chamber opera. It’s a very exciting, new art form today.”

The love for opera came naturally, as both of Clearfield’s parents, a painter and a physician, played music in the house she grew up in, and her mother, in particular, loves opera.

“We would have duets and trios, and we would invite people over, and I think that inspired my future love of salons,” she said.

Her Pew fellowship will allow her the opportunity to continue to work on projects she has already embarked on, as well as take a new direction.

“I’m interested in continuing work on large-scale interdisciplinary projects like opera, but also other large-scale collaborative works,” she said, “and I’d like to refine my skills in electronic music.”

She might not mean electronic dance music along the lines of DJs like Skrillex, but she has taken inspiration from her research in the Himalayas and working with electronics and acoustic music together.

She was working in a remote restricted area in the northern Nepalese Himalayan region, near Tibet, and made note of the sounds she heard and how she could incorporate them in her own music.

“I was interested in taking these sound samples from my experience, what I heard, the songs, the language, the wind, the environment, the sound of horse bells and incorporating these into my music,” she said. “One can’t go to the top of the world and remain unchanged, so new sounds were coming out. By incorporating electronic renderings by modifying these field recordings, I felt I was able to create another sonic phase. So I’m interested in furthering my work in electronic and it’s definitely a new direction for me.”

Clearfield is grateful for the opportunities the fellowship will give her, the chance to further her work and to be able to share it with her parents.

“They were thrilled and so excited for me, and we went out for a celebratory dinner,” she laughed — and she credits her past teachers and mentors all the way from the teacher who led her elementary school ensemble to a professor she had at Muhlenberg College who served as a role model as a female composer.

“It really is like a dream come true for an artist to receive this fellowship.”

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