Fort Worth — When it comes to the nature of humanity, its darker sides and the truths present within personal stories, the courtroom has inspired many artists of a contemporary stripe. It’s little wonder as to why this might be the case. Compelling human stories often emerge from the most brutal of circumstances and the most impassive of structures.
It was a series of these compelling stories that inspired Jason Zencka to contribute the libretto to Voir Dire, as he experienced the way they played out in a Stevens Point, Wis., courtroom as a journalist; and composer Matthew Peterson to create a cycle of songs that over a decade’s worth of work and toil have become the present iteration of operatic form.
Described as a gut-wrenching true-crime drama, Voir Dire was presented in snippets in FWO’s Frontiers showcase in 2014, and returns to the festival stage this season for its world premiere. It’s the second work to emerge from the Frontiers initiative for a full production at Fort Worth Opera (the first was 2016’s Embedded).
Voir Dire, when considered in classic legal language, refers to a preliminary examination of witnesses to crime by counsel within the courtroom setting. With that definition in mind, this production and its examination of legal process makes for a work of intricate and fascinatingly told stories.
For Peterson, reworking and recreating Voir Dire until it finalized as a concept that has had many hands involved in its making was the most compelling aspect of involvement, when considering the unreality and the reality of presenting a work of fiction based on life.
“In opera, the music is telling us something we can’t necessarily see on stage, some of the things it's telling us is what the setting is,” he says. “Now in the courtroom…I think that the music there is asking us, ‘Are we in the real courtroom, or are we in a dream courtroom?’ We’re following the main character, the Judge, [as] he’s going back and forth between the everyday, monotonous courtroom, and the courtroom of his dreams. That’s very unrealistic. I think the truest stories are unrealistic.”
Thus, the notion that the work necessarily implies a savage sense of brutality was not the intention of either the composer or librettist when considering the genre that might be called “legal drama.”
Writing the narrative and the lion’s share of the lyrics was more about the humanity, and the impassive nature of the legal system as Zencka filtered it through a lens inspired by classics and philosophy, to create a work that “has a lot of fingerprints on it.”
“Matt and I have had a back-and-forth throughout [our] experience and recurring discussion about how to assemble this material,” Zencka says. “How much of a dramatic through-line do we need? Will it follow a three-act, rising-action structure? Or could it be something else? Could it be more fragmented? What would best portray what it’s like to actually sit in a courtroom? You have this kind of channel-flipping of event after event.”
Zencka eventually began to look at Voir Dire as a “gallery of work.” He described it as a collection, or “novitas” that are linked thematically and geographically that gain in power throughout presentation. He also explained that the artifice of courtroom and the human stories as presented within it are intended to be in a conversation or direct contrast of one another to create a palpable sense of tension.
The presentation is engineered to tell a compelling story indeed.
Voir Dire, which features mezzo-soprano Anna Laurenzo, baritone Trevor Martin and bass-baritone Nathan Mattingly, opens April 23 to a sold-out audience at McDavid Studio and will continue with five additional sold-out performances through May 6, which is not the usual situation that most new work within the genre seems to meet. A waiting list for tickets is currently being maintained by the Fort Worth Opera.