Paradox Opera | Bicentennial Plaza and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Raleigh | Eno House, Hillsborough | Mar. 23-31 | Live-streamed studio show Mar. 21

“Calling for Jane” music video

The year is 1969. A woman dials a number on a pink touch-tone phone and nervously leaves a message for “Jane.” She’s calling the Jane Collective, also known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, the Chicago-based underground organization that provided access to some 11,000 medically safe abortions between 1969 and 1973.

Listen closely to composer Rachel Dean’s music and lyricist Erin Reifler’s words in the YouTube video for the song “Calling for Jane.” There’s an unexpected lightness to the agile—and sometimes precarious—dance of eighth notes. As she speaks, the woman clearly knows her situation is serious, but she’s not crushed by the circumstances. She’s resilient. Major and not minor chords predominate, and singer Alissa Roca’s soprano scales the treble clef as the music lifts and encourages her.

If you weren’t told, you might not even realize what you’re listening to is opera.

But the first music video release from Morrisville’s Paradox Opera underscores some of the changes that founder Roca wants to see in her art form, as an accessible new work her company commissioned to speak to the present moment in our culture.

And when Roca performs it live, outside the North Carolina State Legislature building next Thursday, and in venues in Raleigh and Hillsborough the following week, it will also underscore the change that many want to see in our current body politic.

The song takes its rightful place during Autonomy, a collection of nine works and an accompanying art exhibit commissioned and assembled “in defiance,” Roca says, against Dobbs v. Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court case last summer that overturned Roe v. Wade. After an online streaming performance on March 21 and Thursday’s performance on Bicentennial Plaza, Autonomy will play dates the following week at Hillsborough’s Eno House and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh.

The Dobbs decision came down while the company was working on its debut production, Covid Chronicles, last June.

“I reached out to a number of women and nonbinary composers and librettists that same day,” Roca recalls. “I said, ‘I feel the only way I know to respond to this is to make art, so let’s do something.’”

Responses reflecting a broad range of reactions came in from across the country, as composers contributed new works and songs already written. In addition to Dean and Reifler’s homage to the Janes, Chicago-based composer Michelle Isaac offered “Our Idea of Nothing at All,” a witty and scathing response to Edwin Webb, an early 20th-century representative from North Carolina who initially opposed suffrage before becoming the only legislator from the state to vote in favor of it.

Poet Kate Gale’s wry, pensive character studies are set in songs from California composer Mark Abel’s “The Palm Trees Are Restless.” 

Marissa Simmons and the Kilroys’ List playwright Germaine Shames’s furious and ribald “An Open Letter to Samuel Alito” contrasts with the frank assessments and gentle affirmations of Jamey Guzman and Jolie O’Dell’s “The Storyteller.” In their midst are two from Los Angeles: composer Akshaya Avril Tucker’s brooding “The Value of a Bird” and Dana Kaufman’s anthem “Until My Body Is My Own.”

Four of the seven composers contributed newly commissioned works for this concert.

Simmons says that she wanted to shed light on the many circumstances that lead people to seek abortion care, and recalls the 10 years of fighting it took for her to get a medically necessary hysterectomy.

“They needed me to connect them with my therapist,” she says. “And they needed permission from my husband—despite them saying I wouldn’t survive a pregnancy.”

When Simmons got the procedure just as Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court, the timing was “terrifying.”

“If I hadn’t won that fight and [had] accidentally gotten pregnant, it would have been a death sentence for me, and anyone who would help me could be criminalized in some states,” she says. “There are hundreds of thousands of women dealing with the same thing for different medical conditions, and somehow no one seems to know about that.”

The first thing Reifler and Dean focused on was who would be given voice in their song.

“We both agreed pretty quickly it was someone who was calling the phone number [for the collective, posted on flyers and in personal ads from the time],” Reifler says. “Just an average person who didn’t think it could happen to her.”

The two also tried to imagine how the act of making a call would feel.

“What are you thinking when you’re on [a Jane call], what questions would you ask, and what would they ask to protect themselves,” Reifler says. “And what is the emotional journey to get from that phone call to showing up at the door for your procedure?”

To humanize the character, Dean started out with music to reflect “the awkwardness, the nervousness; someone who might make an inappropriate joke because they’re uncomfortable with the situation.” 

Those notes brought the woman into focus for Reifler. “I was like, ‘Oh, I see. Now I understand this woman’s voice and energy.’”

Audiences are likely to, as well, in both the YouTube video online and at the in-person events next week.

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