When Angela Rice reads Scripture, she hears music.
"I started studying Scripture and I started thinking how I would like to put music to my favorite texts," the Lexington composer says. "Going through the New Testament, starting with the book of John, I would hit passages and think, I would really like to put these to music.
"These are meaningful to me at this point in my life, and I would like to match the beauty of the text to beautiful music."
So she did.
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The result will be presented when The Bluegrass Opera performs Thy Will Be Done, Rice's new Easter cantata featuring tenor Gregory Turay as Jesus.
"It is very singable, beautiful music," says Turay, a University of Kentucky graduate whose career has included numerous roles at the Metropolitan Opera. "Just from an aesthetic point of view, in terms of the Scripture, it's very singable. It's not like contemporary music from the standpoint of being tonally challenged. It's something that churches in the area, God-fearing folk, will really enjoy and be drawn to. There's a lot in there for them spiritually and emotionally when listening to the work."
When Rice went searching for someone to help her fully realize her ambition of setting Scripture to music, she turned to Lorne Dechtenberg, founder and artistic director of The Bluegrass Opera, a company dedicated to presenting new works. Because of that mission, Dechtenberg sees a lot of new work, and when he saw Rice's piece, he saw something special.
"Angela has a great sense of how to select text and how to choose the pieces that have not only the biggest dramatic impact, from a director's standpoint, but also spiritual meaningfulness," Dechtenberg says. "That's why this cantata is so pithy. "It's not overly long, but every single chunk of music in it has got a very strong center message, and they just go one right to the next, and there's never a dull moment. Every piece is a strong piece."
Rice and Dechtenberg were introduced by Phyllis Jenness, the founder of the Lexington Singers who also directed the voice program at the University of Kentucky until the early 1990s. Jenness also encouraged Turay to look at Rice's work. While Rice had the basic text and music together, she worked with Dechtenberg on orchestrating it and printing the score.
Most of this work was done outside of The Bluegrass Opera banner. But Rice, who has been a longtime Central Kentucky arts donor, wanted to have the piece performed, though she didn't aim to make a profit from it.
"I kind of half jokingly said, 'Well The Bluegrass Opera could always use a fund-raiser," Dechtenberg says. "And we could certainly put a piece on like this because it's not that difficult in terms of the number of performers and the difficulty of the music. And she took me seriously."
The piece will be performed by a small instrumental ensemble; the principal singers will be in costume.
Thy Will Be Done starts with Psalm 23 foretelling the birth of Jesus, then follows through his birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and the subsequent impact. Rice did not intend for the piece to fall together chronologically, but it did, she says.
"I really wanted this to be a guide because I was looking around, especially at the younger generation of children that are not exposed to Scripture and people that don't go to church anymore," Rice says. "I want to bring Scripture back around to people who might not be familiar with it to help guide them through some of life's problems."
Turay, a devout Christian, has sung in faith-based works before, including the opera Moses und Aaron at the Metropolitan Opera and numerous Messiah performances, including December's presentation by the Lexington Singers.
But taking on Jesus was a daunting task, he says.
"It's one of the most important, influential figures of our history," Turay says. "It carries a lot of weight, gravitas. But it is also an incredible opportunity to sing and profess your faith through music."
Before the performance of Thy Will Be Done, soprano Lori White will sing Rice's Martyred Maid, a piece about Joan of Arc, who led France to several victories in the Hundred Years War, claiming she had divine guidance. The Roman Catholic Church made her a saint.
"I have never heard or performed such a journey that blends human emotion with this spiritual realm," White says. "I think she is a conduit, a channel for beautiful, heavenly occurrences. She's open to being used on the planet."
And Dechtenberg and Turay expect Rice's works will be used again.
"I've gotten some feedback from some of the performers in rehearsals asking, 'Hey, is this number or this number available by itself? Our church would love this, and there's no good setting of this out there,' like Psalm 23 and a number of pieces like that," Dechtenberg says.