Opera Columbus, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra are co-commissioners of the new opera “The Flood,” about the 1913 deluge that ravaged Columbus.
In recent seasons, Opera Columbus productions have transported audiences to Egypt in “Aida” and Japan in “Madama Butterfly.”
For its latest undertaking, the troupe is looking closer to home for inspiration.
In partnership with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Opera Columbus has co-commissioned “The Flood,” a brand-new work revolving around Ohio’s disastrous flood of 1913. Over Easter that year, a storm system entered central Ohio, resulting in the failure of levees along the Scioto River and enveloping Franklinton in as much as 17 feet of water. More than 90 people lost their lives.
In the opera’s telling, the flood led to a legacy of tragedy for a fictional family in Franklinton.
“The flood is mainly the curtain, the backdrop to the story,” said Opera Columbus General and Artistic Director Peggy Kriha Dye.
The production — Opera Columbus’ first opera commission in about two decades — will have its world premiere Friday and continue through Sunday in the Southern Theatre.
Dye said the show reflects the troupe’s renewed commitment to makers of contemporary operas.
“To be a forward-thinking leader in the opera field, you need to be creating and commissioning new works as part of the programming,” Dye said. “Just like in literature, you would hate to just sit back and count on all the books that have been written but never want more to be written.”
Led by conductor Steven Osgood, ProMusica’s musicians will perform the score, which features music by Korine Fujiwara, violist of the Carpe Diem String Quartet; and a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth, director of opera studies at the Juilliard School in New York City.
“Because we get to work with the composer — she’s alive, she’s in the room every day and she gives us her feedback regularly — we’re able to know exactly what she meant,” said soprano Meroe Khalia Adeeb of learning the never-before-performed score.
Planning for the production began several years ago, when Dye approached ProMusica Executive Director Janet Chen about embarking on a collaboration; ProMusica has commissioned many original orchestral pieces.
“It just started as a little nugget,” Chen said. “We have never done a commission of this caliber in terms of creating a new chamber opera.”
Dye and Chen agreed to join forces, but first, they needed to settle on the subject of the prospective opera. Eager to tie the production to central Ohio, the two met with Cindy Gaillard of WOSU, producer of the series “Columbus Neighborhoods.”
“I thought if anybody knows the stories of Columbus, WOSU has been researching this for years,” said Dye, who asked Gaillard for an episode of local history that was both epic and operatic.
“She said, hands down, the flood of 1913,” Dye said.
To devise a story, Dye turned to Wadsworth, whose resume includes writing the libretto for Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera “A Quiet Place.”
“I was able to go and chase things around on the internet a little bit to research it, and a lot of different things came up out of that,” said Wadsworth, who decided that the drama should take place over the course of a century, with specific years — 1913, 1940, 1970 and 2014 — represented by different rooms onstage.
“Quite early on, I had the idea that it had to be different rooms and maybe different time periods, and it was really about the fallout — the long-term effects of civic and personal trauma,” said Wadsworth, also the director of the show.
In the 2014 portion of the opera, bass-baritone Kevin Deas plays Clement, who is fielding questions about the flood — and its impact on his family — from his grown daughter Annie (Adeeb). Multiple members of the fictional family tree perished as a result of the flood.
“There’s a line that I say that the flood never stops drowning people because of the lasting effects through generations from this horrific event,” Deas said.
As the opera skips from one year to another, Fujiwara’s score shifts in style.
“The music is as complicated as the story in the sense that every room has its own flavor musically,” Dye said.
Yet, with a story inspired by central Ohio history and a run time of around an hour, Adeeb said that “The Flood” could be ideal for first-time operagoers.
“They’ll understand a lot of the local references about different locations and historical figures from this area,” she said.