Grey Grant, creator of the opera Michigan Trees

Grey Grant (left) leads the new Fifth Wall Performing Arts group, whose logo (right) was created by Tanner Porter.

Trees, folklore, Michigan places, Greek mythology, and the trans experience infuse the new opera Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, which is also the name of a guidebook that inspired it. This opera, written, composed, and produced by Grey Grant, depicts the journey of a trans-woman named Orna as she comes to terms with her identity.

Fifth Wall Performing Arts will present the opera as its establishing project, which premieres Wednesday, August 28, and Thursday, August 29, both at 8:30 pm at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.

A preview of the opera, also paired with other operas and folk songs, will take place at Literati Bookstore on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm. 

In the 11-part libretto, Orna travels north to Chapel Rock on Lake Superior, where she becomes a white pine and connects with her womanhood. She also encounters the mystic character of Mother of Trees, which represents and protects the spirit of trees and encourages Orna’s transformation. During her journey and transformation, though, Orna separates into two parts -- Orna, As She Feels She Is Seen and Orna, As She Sees Herself -- which embody the internal disconnect and conflict that transgender people feel, Grant told Pulp in an interview. Then Orna, As She Feels She Is Seen leaves the other half of herself to trek back south, passing Gaylord, Flint, and other cities to reach Ypsilanti, only to realize that she has left her true self wilting on the shore. Again, Orna goes north and becomes one with herself. 

During these journeys, Orna communicates her desires, singing:

I’m leaving and don’t sing / your songs, 
don’t attempt to bring / me back to your 
world and its limits of skin, / limits of 
growth, / its invisible limbs that kept me 
yoked to your thrashing / tongue and fist, 
don’t make deals you can’t keep, / and let 
me sleep, and be full.

The fictional plot connects with Grant’s own experiences.

“There has always been a disconnect and inner conflict from my gender dysphoria,” they said. “Dysphoria and internalized transphobia have held me back from moving into a state of transition and living authentically as a trans-femme person. So the opera is exploring that coming to terms with self -- being able to accept one’s self enough to live out themself. It’s a continual process.”

The opera is loosely related to the book Michigan Trees. Grant recently began learning to identify trees and ties the local flora into the libretto. 

“There’s a sense of being guided through Michigan, and it also establishes the folklore,” they said. “The connection to trees gives you a clue as to what’s happening; reading about the native pine trees in Michigan is a way of seeing what’s native or not.” 

Sounds such as lentils being poured onto surfaces, rustling leaves, pouring water, and drumming on wood will evoke this focus on the natural world and accompany the classical and folk singing and music. Lamps will punctuate the stage, and a map of Michigan drawn on craft paper will line the stage floor. 

Vocalists and musicians will be on a long stage with the audience in close proximity. The cast and crew include Allison Proust as Orna, As She Sees Herself; Grey Grant as Orna, As She Feels She Is Seen; and Kate Moss, Kara Huckabone, and Kurt Clare as Mother of Trees. The Converge String Quartet, composed of Megan Roher and Malhar Kute on violins; Ryan McDonald on viola; and Hanna Brooke Rumora on cello, will play. Conner Darling and Sofia Carbonara will accompany on percussion. The rehearsal pianist is Samantha Kao. The director is Karl Ronneburg, and the stage manager is Maria Paterno. Peter Littlejohn is heading sound design and operation, and Madeline Endres serves as the front of house manager. 

The staging and style will be nontraditional. 

“Instead of being something grandiose and performative, I’m aiming for it to be a dialogue being sung out. I don’t want it to feel elevated from the outside world,” Grant said. “I really love opera that subverts what you think opera is.”

This opera serves as the establishing project for Fifth Wall Performing Arts, the new organization created by Grant and Ronneburg, as well as reflects the organization’s approach to art. 

“We want to be a company doing work on the fringes,” said Grant.

The name takes the idea of the fourth wall between the audience and stage a step further. Performers can choose to break the fourth wall and acknowledge the audience. The “fifth wall” adds another wall regarding the identities of the audience and performers, one which the company seeks to also cross, said Grant. 

In this opera and for Fifth Wall Performing Arts “[t]he audience is just as much a part of the art as the performers are,” they noted. “The audience can recognize the people on stage as also people outside the context of the stage. I will still be Grey up there while performing.”

Likewise, the audience is present as people. 

“We also recognize that the audience is there; we are not just playing make-believe,” added Grant. “We are there and telling a story to these people. There’s no suspension of disbelief. We are ourselves telling a story through multiple mediums; we are not trying to convince you that we are I-75 going north, for example.”

Grant’s interest in nonconventional opera and music have grown out of their background. They grew up in North Carolina, listening to southern Appalachian music, Dolly Parton, and folk. When they came to the University of Michigan to study music composition and creative writing, they observed faculty who combine folk and classical music, which was the first time they saw people combining or breaking genre. These observations led Grant to integrate past lived experiences and sounds with traditional music.

“It took coming to Michigan to work back to North Carolina,” they said. 

Other influences include Sacred Harp singing and the shape-note style, the Punch Brothers, Jean Ritchie, Joanna Newsom, Laurie Anderson, and Pauline Oliveros. 

After finishing their undergraduate degree in 2016, Grant spent a year in New York City and then returned to Ann Arbor to write an album with friends. They have since written this opera, and they also work at Literati Coffee. Their time in the Midwest has given them a new perspective on the area, both from their lived experiences and incorporated into their art. 

“A lot of people see the Midwest as a monochromatic landscape,” they said, “but it’s incredibly diverse. My experience in the Midwest is a queer experience full of diversity; I am in a liberal hub with demographic diversity here, but I think the Midwest is a complex and multilayered thing. This opera is how I see Michigan as a really beautiful thing.”

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Fifth Wall Performing Arts presents Grey Grant's Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region on Wednesday, August 28, and Thursday, August 29, both at 8:30 pm at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse. A preview of the opera, also paired with other operas and folk songs, will take place at Literati Bookstore on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm.