Memorialize and Remember: Grey Rose Grant's folk opera "Little Histories" explores the death ritual
Grey Rose Grant puts all of themself into projects.
Their 2019 folk opera Michigan Trees came out of Grant's experience as a trans-femme person. The 2023 chamber-rock opera The Precipice was based on Grant's poems and songs along with the journals of Karl Ronneberg, their co-founder of Fifth Wall Performing Arts. Even Grant's new work, Little Histories, about a mortician looking back on the life events that made him turn to his profession even as they prepare to host a funeral for a former lover, has its roots in the composer, performer, and librettist's North Carolina childhood.
"Little Histories is deeply connected to personal experience," Grant says. "Back in the day I was surrounded by literary nerds and we went through an autofiction phase which has for sure affected how I want to tell stories within the medium of theater. Every little story told in Little Histories has some truth to it: memories of two of my grandparents' funerals; a memory of witnessing a bird fly into a window in high school; the pet cemetery we had in the woods behind my childhood home. That said, these memories are swirled together, misremembered, and injected with a healthy dose of retold mythologies, the story of the birth of the modern American funeral industry, and more. I enjoy beginning from the personal and moving outward from there."
Fifth Wall Performing Arts' production of Little Histories runs January 26-28 at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, and I asked Grant, a 2016 graduate from the University of Michigan who currently works at Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center, about their latest DIY folk opera.
Q: What is a "folk opera"? For Little Histories is it partly because you're having the audience sing songs from The Sacred Harp collection of choral music?
A: I am a folk singer steeped in folk music traditions such as Euro-American balladry and shape-note singing, for example. As a composer, I bring those traditions into my work in a manner that doesn't try to "elevate" folk music with Western classical music as you might see with composers like Bartok, Copland, Stravinsky, etc., but rather, I try to let folk music exist simply within the work as itself. Of course, there are instruments being used in ways folk musicians wouldn't use them. I try to flit between modalities to create a prismatic array of musical styles that all feel uniquely sincere to themselves. This, to me, is what makes Little Histories a folk opera. I am telling a story through music, movement, lighting, stage design, and costuming, as an opera does, while folk music is infused throughout the work. I am also a folk singer who'll be singing alongside a combination of folk singers, like my partner and cast member Daniel Becker, and classical singers, such as my fellow cast member, Allison Prost.
The inclusion of tunes from The Sacred Harp definitely adds to the folkiness of the folk opera. I wanted to be sure to present sacred harp as it is with all of its aural performance practices and traditions while also using it as a powerful way of highlighting themes of the show, and using it as a communal music-making element. I am passionate about communal music-making practices that have a low or no barrier of entry to engagement and The Sacred Harp tradition is a beautiful example of this.
Q: Sacred harp singing is also an influence on Michigan Trees. What is it about the music you heard growing up in North Carolina that you keep returning to even after you've lived in Michigan and New York City for at least a decade?
A: Sacred harp wasn't necessarily present in Michigan Trees directly, but was a huge influence on that work's sound world. Little Histories will be the first time I've directly brought sacred harp into my compositional and theatrical life.
I remember driving in the car with my grandfather through the mountains of North Carolina listening to the radio. My father was and is an '80s synth/indie/pop type of guy and that was very much my soundtrack growing up. There was lots of folk music brewing in the periphery until that moment in the car with my grandfather where we listened to that bluegrass/white gospel, which at the time blew my mind. I was struck by the power of these acoustic instruments and these raw, piercing, sharp vocals that were so different from what I normally listened to. My mother was/is a huge Dolly Parton fan and one of the first full Dolly albums I'd listen to was Little Sparrow from her bluegrass trilogy. I reacted to this album in the same way—It was just incredible to hear this unabashed power that came from these acoustic instruments and vocals. As I grew up, I'd befriend folks in my classical music communities who were also folk musicians, which kept me steeped in folk traditions. I continue to love the intimacy, heart, and beauty of how folk music can stretch time, emote, and create tiny musical details that are a result of a performance-forward tradition as opposed to a written musical tradition like notated Western classical music. On one hand, I could totally nerd out and write a book of essays as to why I love folk music, and on the other hand, it's become an innate part of myself where the answer to why I keep returning to it is just "because I love it, because it's great music."
Q: After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2016, you moved to New York City for a year. What brought you back to Washtenaw County and what has kept you here?
A: What brought me back to Michigan was the opportunity to live in a farmhouse right outside of Ann Arbor with some new friends. That and a coffee shop start-up that fell through. Really though, it was the community of folk I had left behind. I was struggling to make musician friends whom I connected with in NYC. I went there to pursue a master's degree and dropped out of that program after a week because it just wasn't a right fit. I know if I had stayed longer I'd eventually meet folks, but at the time I missed my community, I missed the trees, cliffs, and lakes of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region. These are also the same things that keep me here. I like the speed of the Great Lakes Region. I like the cultural and environmental diversity of the Great Lakes Region despite the assumptions and stereotypes of the Midwest being a monolith—it's entirely untrue. With my partner and his family nearby, I now also have a supportive family nearby that I love being around and helps out with living so far away from my relatives back in North Carolina.
Q: What made sense about hosting Little Histories at Canterbury House?
A: The decision to house Little Histories at Canterbury was made because of some really boring to talk about logistical things and because I wanted the show to feel like an intimate home funeral. Canterbury House is the absolute correct vibe for the show, and it has been such a big supporter of my work and the work of so many of my friends over the decade that I've lived in the area. The last piece I did there was a work called Queer Body, which was a very "art-school" performance art piece about queer rebirth. With Little Histories, it feels like a quiet artistic homecoming.
Q: It's hard to get an indie-rock band together, let alone a cast, crew, and orchestra for an independent, experimental opera theater. What's your process for finding like-minded creatives who like to work on the fringes?
A: The key is to write for a small ensemble. The ensemble is made up of three musicians: Michael Avitabile, flutes; Wesley Hornpetrie, cello and voice; Melissa Coppola, piano, accordion, voice; and our conductor Danielle Wright who'll also be doing some backup vocals for us.
The cast includes: Allison Prost as "The Friend," Daniel Becker as "The Lover," and myself as "The Mortician." My process is a little boring for this: I had an idea of what potential instruments I wanted to write the work for, then I considered how many of my friends played these instruments, and figured out what the possibility would be of making it all come together based on that data.
With this project I did want to work with folks I know because I find those pre-established relationships can go a long way in creating a fabulous new music ensemble out of thin air. I love all of these folks involved in the project, and it's amazing to get a chance to work with some of them on yet another project, and others for the very first time. I am so grateful to be working with my friends on this piece, and I can't wait to share it with those who come.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Fifth Wall Performing Arts' production of Grey Rose Grant's "Little Histories: A Folk Opera in Four Acts" runs January 26-28 at Canterbury House, 721 East Huron Street, Ann Arbor, Visit fifthwallperformingarts.com for tickets, showtimes, and more information.
➥ "Take a Leap: Fifth Wall's new abstract chamber-rock opera 'The Precipice' debuts at Riverside Arts in Ypsilanti" [Pulp, April 19, 2023]
➥ "Grey Grant's new opera plays with the form while chronicling the journey and transformation of a trans-woman" [Pulp, July 23, 2019]