There are rarely things as awe-inspiring as watching the debut of a work. Burden of Love is an opera written by Lon W. Chaffin and debuted at Atkinson’s recital hall. This opera delves into serious topics revolving around love and hate as well as the stories of all the people caught up between these two opposing forces, most of those people being inspired by real NMSU students who have felt comfortable enough to share their experiences with Dr. Chaffin. Love is portrayed by the character Goel, meaning “redeemer” in Hebrew while hate is characterized by Haras, meaning “to destroy” in Hebrew. The music is beautifully written with chromatic motifs following Haras and more uplifting diatonic motifs following Goel. The composition is intricately and thoughtfully created, with uplifting and triumphant melodies to support Goel while Haras is typically ushered in by a darker tone riddled with chromaticism for a darker effect. The staging is simple with Goel and those who have cast off hate tending to remain to the left of the stage while Haras and those who were under her influence stuck to the right. The dichotomy between love and hate is portrayed in a straightforward manner to the audience resulting in an opera that is extremely easy to follow and connect with. The costuming remained simple with the characters wearing scrubs with pieces of fabric over their shoulders symbolizing the burdens they carry and there are very touching moments where the costuming interacts with the opera as the side characters give their burdens to Goel. The opera utilizes minimal stage props but heavily utilizes a “texting” format on a screen to clarify what the characters are saying to each other and how they are interacting in a very audience-friendly manner while relating to how many people talk to each other through digital means. The visuals complement this opera beautifully with simplistic artistry. The projection of the lyrics with an emphasis on certain phrases that represent characters is touching and intertwines with this opera in a way that is truly unique. This is a touching and feel-good opera with a strong core message reminding people to always be kind to one another and to spread as much joy and love in the world as possible.
Prior to Burden of Love’s premiere in March, The Agora editor Jessica Barrio and NMSU student Matthew Curtin interviewed composer Lon W. Chaffin and director Sarah Neely. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Matthew: Your opera Burden of Love, what was the inspiration behind it?
Dr. Chaffin: Several things. You know, I really got concerned about all the negative social media stuff that I kept seeing and people just being mean to people, they don’t know. Just sort of vindictive kind stuff that had no real purpose except just to be mean to people. I thought “really, is that? Is that where we are? Is that the kind of world we’re living in?” And of course, politics has gotten so bad too and you hear almost weekly about somebody shooting up a school or a mall. I was thinking that this would be some way to sort of counter that somehow. And I knew talking to our students that there were several students that had traumatic life experiences, family issues, abandonment issues, abuse, things that they dealt with, and those folks, they need the rest of us to sort of deal and cope. And so I thought, the rest of us sort of have a, should have an obligation to help these people, to care about these folks and pull 'em along, pull 'em out of the desperate places they’re in. So anyway, that’s sort of where we started.
Matthew: What were your impressions of this opera?
Professor Neely: I am just really excited and excited for the students to have this opportunity. I mean, for me, it didn’t start out as my baby, as my project, so I was just happy to help in any way possible. So initially, I think pretty early on they had asked me if I would sing in it, which I was happy to do, especially because there was a concern that the evil character needed to have a little bit more acting experience to be able to like really pull that off. And since our opera workshop program hasn’t really been performing since Covid, they don’t have as much experience. Then it turned, and it developed into me actually taking over and directing the production which is very exciting. I’m very grateful for it to be my first directing experience because it is so much of a collaborative effort and I don’t feel like it’s all on my shoulders. Dr. Chaffin had a very strong vision of how he wanted it to be, so I’m functioning to support the vision, which is really cool, and I’m really happy to do it.
Matthew: What impact have you all seen that this has had on the people involved in it?
Professor Neely: I can confirm that at least one person has started to cry in rehearsal just based on the impact of the music and the text. That is very powerful, and I think we are really spreading a message of hope and love, and kindness.
Matthew: What would you say has been the biggest challenge for each of you?
Professor Neely: I mean, the hardest thing for me is managing, because I’m learning a lot of new things and this is my first experience directing an opera. So I’m having so many really amazing learning experiences. Having to focus on that and also perform at the same time is really challenging.
Dr. Chaffin: The thing for me is, it doesn’t matter what composition I write, the hardest thing creating something and then handing it over to somebody else. I’ve told my composition students, it’s like having a baby and then giving your baby to somebody else to take care of. And you’re thinking, “oh yeah, don’t drop it, don’t break it,” that kind of thing. So that’s always a challenge for me, no matter what the piece is.
Matthew: What is the most rewarding part of this so far for each of you?
Professor Neely: It’s just so great to be able to see the students having fun and getting an experience like this because they haven’t since, I mean, I’ve been here now, this is my fourth year and we haven’t done a fully staged production of any kind. So it’s been a while and these students are experiencing an opportunity like this and so I’m just really happy to be a part of it and to be able to start growing the program. I know many of the students have already mentioned that they’re excited and they want to know what are we gonna do next, which is, really exciting.
Dr. Chaffin: As far as rewarding for me it is. I mean, it’s always cool to hear your music live. The computer for the most part does okay, but it doesn’t sing. It’s so good to hear people actually belting out the words that I sweated over and struggled with and fretted over for over a year.
Matthew: One of the appeals of the operas, is that it is just one act. What was the decision behind that?
Professor Neely: I know a lot of choices for rep often aim for shorter and in English so that it’s more easily accessible to the audience. So that they can really connect and understand what’s going on. They’re not having to sit there for hours and hours and you know, we know that the population that really enjoys opera is an older generation, and so bathroom breaks and time is kind of a concern. It’s sort of becoming universal in the industry it seems like, that people are aiming for more concise shows.
Dr. Chaffin: It’s expensive and it’s time-consuming. If you’re trying to pull off a two-act or three-act opera, or if you’re trying to do Mozart, it’s a huge time… pardon the expression, time suck for the students. It really just sucks up their time if you’re trying to do a major production.
Matthew: What is anything else that you would like any readers to know?
Professor Neely: It’s beautiful music, but there’s something about the energy and the magic that happens when you see something on stage and how the story translates. Anyone can understand the story and empathize with it and be changed by the magic of theater. It’s so beautiful and amazing and I think a lot of people just haven’t had the opportunity to experience that magic, like being sucked into a different world almost.
Dr. Chaffin: I mean, it’s real people. It’s not like going and watching a movie, there are real people up there and somebody said at one point that movies are art, theater is life, and television is furniture. I’m not sure that translates well, but there are real people up there. That makes a big difference, you know? It’s like watching a concert on TV or being in the audience and seeing the performers on stage and their energy and their expressions and-
Professor Neely: it’s magic.
Dr. Chaffin: Yeah. So magic.