Rose Standish Nichols will be the subject of an original, one-woman opera now in development and set to debut next year at the Nichols House Museum, her former family home.
Beth Wiemann, the composer and librettist (who writes the story and lyrics for an opera) for the upcoming “I Give You My Home: The Rose Standish Nichols Story,” wasn’t familiar with Rose Nichols before she first visited the Nichols House Museum about three years ago, but as someone with a strong affinity for female historical figures, she was immediately intrigued by what she learned there.
“She immersed herself in all the things that she did, but she didn’t always succeed,” Wiemann said of Rose Nichols. “She could’ve been a much more influential person, but she didn’t get to the most powerful ranks of the peace or suffrage movements. She was a supporter.”
After deciding that Rose Nichols would provide a good subject for an opera, Wiemann, who teaches composition and clarinet at the University of Maine in Orono, “let the idea percolate for a bit,” she said, as she read up on her, including several books published by the museum. Wiemann then returned to the museum about a year after her first visit to get some additional background information.
As Wiemann was mulling over ideas for the project, she attended a performance in Haverhill based on the life of Hannah Duston – an English colonist and mother of nine who was taken captive by Native Americans in Haverhill in 1697 during King William’s War and later exacted her revenge by killing and scalping 10 Native Americans – that also included a historic house tour. The performance was a production of Guerilla Opera, and Wiemann was so impressed by what she saw there that she reached out to Aliana de la Guardia, artistic director of the Boston opera company, about the possibility of collaborating with her on a work about Rose Nichols.
Once de la Guardia had committed to the project, Wiemann got to work on her first draft of the opera, and soon afterwards, Wiemann returned to the Nichols House Museum again to talk with the museum’s then-education and research coordinator about the possibility of staging a performance there..
Wiemann learned that the Nichols House had previously accommodated only performances by singers accompanied by pianists, she said, “but since the rooms are so small, it was always sort of a negotiation.”
Now, Wiemann is at work on a second draft of the opera, which, she said, takes into account the logistics of staging it inside the Nichols. House to “make it more logically feasible for the museum’s rooms.”
And after talking with de la Guardia, Wiemann has decided rather than making “I Give You My Home” a straightforward period piece about Rose Nichols’ life, it would instead focus on a modern woman who’s channeling her spirit, she said, so the work will merge Rose Nichols’ world at the turn of the 20th century with a woman today reflecting on Nichols and her accomplishments.
For Guerilla Opera, the project was appealing because it allows the organization to work on a smaller scale than they ever had before.
“At the time, it was much smaller than the works we had produced, so I thought it was attractive for that reason,” said de la Guardia. “The intimacy was attractive. We produce operas on a small scale, and since this was even smaller, I really liked it.”
“I Give You My Home” will be a one-woman vocal performance by de la Guardia, supported by Mike Williams, percussion, and Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone.
Cara Consilvio, who will be directing the opera, also has a background in film, said de la Guardia, so there are plans to film the performance as well.
“The piece is multi-media anyway,” said de la Guardia, “so I figured with her experience, we can together find very creative ways to highlight the space of the house.”
While Guerilla Opera has staged productions in a wide range of different venues before, bringing “I Give You My Home” to the Nichols House will present a new set of challenges.
“The Nichols House Museum is very distinct because it’s a historic home, not a theatre, so we have to be very respectful of the space because they’re actively preserving artifacts in there,” said de la Guardia. “And we’ll be working with the museum’s space management to be respectful of the artifacts they’re trying to preserve.”
The project recently got a major boost after Guerilla Opera received a $15,000 grant for it from the Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston, which encourages individual artists and small companies to produce new work. But they still have a great deal more fundraising to do before reaching their $45,000-$50,000 target budget for “I Give You My Home,” which is expected to premiere at the Nichols House Museum next summer, said de la Guardia.
“Guerilla Opera is a small company that does ambitious things on a shoe-string,” she added. “It’s what we’re known for. We’ll be fundraising throughout the year and we’re hopeful that with the help of our community we’ll meet this challenge.”
Meanwhile, both the upcoming opera and the Nichols House were featured in a segment on the June 23 episode of WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle,” which included interviews with de la Guardia, as well as with Linda Marshall, executive director of the Nichols House Museum.
Following its broadcast, Marshall told this reporter, “We’re always excited to enliven the space and working with a performing arts organization will give us the opportunity to bring energy and multi-sensory experience for visitors.”
Moreover, Marshall said the project allows the Nichols House a unique opportunity to support a performing arts organization in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, it was really tough for performing arts organizations to offer performances, so we’re happy to be working with Guerilla Opera on this opportunity,” she said.
And even though “I Give You My Home” is now in development, Marshall said the museum is already “interested in bringing the audience through the rooms of the house” as part of the performance.
If you would like to contribute to help the Nichols House Museum and Guerilla Opera bring “I Give You My Home: The Rose Standish Nichols Story” to the museum., email Linda Marshall at [email protected] for more information.