Innovative Arias

Sheila Houlahan of The Little Things Returns Home

To Seattle and the opera.

By Sophie Grossman January 28, 2022

Sheila Houlahan.

Sheila Houlahan was an opera singer in a "past life." Raised in Seattle, the writer, singer, and actress left a burgeoning film career behind in LA—which included a role in The Little Things alongside Denzel Washington—to ride out lockdown with her parents here in 2020. 

Back in town, she fully embraced the pandemic zeitgeist, producing a Twitch-streamed feature film, Night, Mother, based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Marsha Norman. Parts of the film were pre-taped, but Houlahan’s background in live performance came to bear in the hybrid format. Now, she’s come full circle, returning to the medium she left behind with a project for Seattle Opera’s Jane Lang Davis Creation Lab.

Houlahan’s reasons for narrowing her focus to film were many, but among them was the atmosphere of creative and cultural stagnation she experienced in the world of opera. “I mean, there’s still some companies that do blackface,” says Houlahan, with a pained wince. The operatic canon is exceptionally Eurocentric, she adds, even more so than that of literature or the visual arts, and this contributes to a perpetual aura of elitism, a perception that opera as an art form is as out of reach to most people as the impossibly lofty notes struck by a soprano. 

The Seattle Opera, she says, is different: it “seeks to be a solution at all times.” Its Creation Lab, funded by a $1 million gift from the foundation established by late Seattle philanthropists and art collectors Jane Davis Lang and Richard Lang, provides grants and mentorship to writers and composers from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Houlahan, who is mixed-race and identifies as queer and differently abled, says that the program avoids the pitfalls of tokenization or what she calls “pedastal-ism” that often mar the good intentions of initiatives like this. She doesn’t feel as though she’s being asked to single-handedly break open a historically insular art form or speak to the experiences of a vast group of people; she’s simply being “invited to participate in bridge building.”

All the Creation Lab participants have been commissioned to write a 20-minute-long piece—a refreshingly brief runtime, given that some popular operas are five hours long—all of which will be performed together in a concert format. There will be no costumes or set design, leaving each piece to stand on the basis of its song and storytelling alone.

Houlahan can’t give specifics, but she says the piece she’s working on with composer Daniel Whitworth examines a classic tale, one that’s been rehashed in “a bazillion different operas,” through a novel lens. If most operas focus on grand tales of young love, Houlahan wants to speak to “old, tired love.” She hopes to illuminate the neglected story of the protagonist beyond their youthful prime, and create a work that can bring new audiences into the fold. 

Houlahan and Whitworth began work on the piece in October, and a date for the Creation Lab concerts at Tagney Jones Hall at the Opera Center is forthcoming.

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