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Elena Ruehr’s “Cassandra in the Temples”

Roomful of Teeth will premiere Ruehr’s new work at MIT

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Elena Ruehr’s opera “Cassandra in the Temples” premieres this Friday in Kresge Auditorium.
Christian Steiner
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The Grammy Award-winning vocal octet, Roomful of Teeth, was chosen to premiere Elena Ruehr’s new opera.
Courtesy of roomful of teeth

Elena Ruehr, who has been a lecturer at MIT in the Department of Music and Theater Arts since 1992, is premiering three new works this fall. Two of those, “Eve” and “It’s About Time,” had their openings in Boston and San Francisco this month, while the third one, an opera titled “Cassandra in the Temples,” will have its opening night in Kresge Auditorium at MIT this Friday.

Ruehr’s work is known for its complex structure, organic music, and diverse collaborations that give her compositions a fresh, dynamic flavor. For the upcoming opera that will premiere at MIT, Ruehr is working with librettist Gretchen Henderson and Grammy Award-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth. The Tech talked to Ruehr about this exciting collaboration, inspirations that led her to the creation of this piece, and her artistic beginnings.

“I have many important musical influences,” said Ruehr. “My first love as a child was ballet, and I learned a great deal of ballet music. I also played the piano, taking lessons from my mother who had a background in folk music. She taught me how to write down the music I improvised from a very early age, and also taught me many folk songs. I listened to jazz that my dad played, rock music that my brothers liked, and I studied jazz in high school, with Eddie Russ, as well as composition and piano with a fantastic composer named Melvin Kangas.”

Ruehr’s father also had an important influence on her choice of career as his musical preferences became a part of Ruehr’s creative core early in her life. Later on, Ruehr got interested in two divergent musical ideas, twelve-tone music and minimalism, whose characteristics still have an impact on Ruehr’s music.

This year, Ruehr received the Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to take a semester off from teaching and focus on premiering her new works. The three pieces have been written during the last two years, and even though it’s only a coincidence that they are all premiering at the same time, Ruehr admits that the timing for rehearsals and concerts is keeping her busy. “It’s About Time” premiered this Sunday in San Francisco, and just as Ruehr got home, Roomful of Teeth arrived at MIT to premiere “Cassandra in the Temples.”

“The idea for [‘Cassandra in The Temples’] was a true collaboration with the librettist, Gretchen Henderson,” said Ruehr about the upcoming opera. “Gretchen, who was an MIT Melon Post doctorate, asked me a year and a half ago if I’d like to collaborate with her on a piece with text. I loved her work, which is smart, well-informed, and extremely innovative, and we started brainstorming ideas. We decided that we’d like to write an a cappella opera, and that Cassandra was an interesting subject because of how her story, with its implications of truth and lies, hyperbole and distrust, was very contemporary. While we were discussing this, Roomful of Teeth released a CD of their music, and we both fell in love with their beautiful and inventive sound. We wrote a single section from our imagined opera together and sent it to Brad Wells, who directs Roomful of Teeth, asking him if he would be interested in a new opera. He said yes, and a year and a half later, here we are!”

Having an innovative vocal ensemble like Roomful of Teeth premiere this opera is of great importance to Ruehr and Henderson. “We selected Roomful of Teeth because they are extraordinary,” added Ruehr. “The octet will move back and forth between their many styles of music, from a kind of early music sound, to a more straight, contemporary music sound, to more extended techniques like throat singing and singing influenced by Bulgarian Women’s Choirs.”

When asked about the influence of MIT on her work, Ruehr said her students left a significant impact on her artistry. “I’m extremely influenced by my students, in such myriad ways that it’s hard to pin down. Their curiosity and the questions they ask are always making me think about what makes music work, what makes it interesting, what makes it beautiful. In addition, I teach composing in the style of composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and studying that music, taking it apart, and teaching how to recreate within the general style is a complex thing. After decades of working with students on projects and studying the great masters, I find myself more and more interested in incorporating a sense of the history of music into my own work, while still keeping it contemporary and relevant.”

After “Cassandra in the Temples,” Ruehr still has a few important events ahead of her. In January, her new chamber music CD Lift will get released, her second violin sonata with Irina Muresanu and Sarah Bob will have its performance on January 29, and her orchestra piece “Shimmer” will be played on February 21 by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Ruehr described the February concert as “especially close to my heart because the conductor, Alan Pierson, is my former student and has become a good friend.”

“Cassandra in the Temples” premieres this Friday in Kresge Auditorium at 8 p.m. Information about the tickets can be found here: