Hotel Elefant: An Interview with Mary and Leaha


Photo by Dominica Eriksen

According to Executive Director Mary Kouyoumdjian, “Hotel Elefant sparked from a love of composition, which sparked from a teenage obsession with film scores, specifically the movie Rudy (yes, the football movie).”   She and Hotel Elefant Artistic Director Leaha Maria Villarreal, met at University of California, San Diego and instantly clicked with one another.  They describe their experiences at UCSD openly collaborative, and they have continued in similar form with Hotel Elefant.

Both Leaha and Mary tout the ensembles collaborative side, and rightfully so.  It is readily apparent upon listening that this is a group that loves to work together, from the artistic partnership of its directors right down through every member of its ranks.  The collaboration continues with the upcoming “New Shorts,” put on by the New York based Experiments in Opera.  Hotel Elefant will play house band for the evening, and Mary and Leaha each have an opera short being performed.

Below is a brief interview with Mary and Leaha, which should offer a bit of insight into each of them as artists, collaborators, individuals.  And don’t forget, if you’re in NY on February 9th…GO LISTEN!

Mary, describe Leaha’s music.

Introspective, subtle while direct, powerful in its silences with great attention to the space between sounds, thoughtful and detailed even in moments of simplicity, always asking the audience to turn up their ears a bit and really listen. Leaha’s music can often be dark (as she says “like her soul”), but even in its darkness, listening to her music always brings me peace.

* * *

Leaha, it’s your turn…describe Mary’s music.

Mary’s music pulls from so many great areas. The eastern European influence is a hallmark of her style but woven through is also her beautiful sense of timing from film.  Her love of pop shines through on certain pieces and shows a whole other side. No matter what the style it is always incredibly inventive and polished.

* * *

How do the two of you work together, and how is Hotel Elefant a reflection of your relationship as friends and composers?

Mary: Leaha and I were recently told that we’re each other’s “artistic soulmates,” which I think couldn’t be more true. Having both grown up with some of the same music mentors, we both come from similar ways of looking at music, and working together frequently during college trained us for making a good professional partnership.

Leaha: We even held our senior recitals together, which I guess you could say was our first production! Mary gives me the courage to dream big. That’s priceless. Knowing each other’s roots both personally & artistically is a huge part of that.

M: It’s really special to find someone you can work so closely with while still being great friends. I love that we can chat season programming over grilled cheese sandwiches or spontaneous shopping trips to H&M!

On Saturday Feb 9, Hotel Elefant will be the house band for Experiments in Opera’s ‘New Shorts’ program. How did HE’s partnership with EiO begin?

L: Experiments in Opera is created by three wonderful composers: Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady, and Matthew Welch.  They approached Hotel Elefant with the concept of ‘New Shorts’ and we were so excited to jump on board.

M: We had heard great things about EiO, and they had worked with and heard a lot of our players in other projects, so the idea of collaborating was all very exciting and just made sense!

L: It’s a great idea and we are thrilled to see many months of preparation finally come together.

Each of you have a short program. Tell me about them.

M: I am a Fish is an electroacoustic one-act opera about John Herrington, a character who questions gender labels and language itself, all while coming to the conclusion that perhaps he is a fish… or maybe he isn’t. It’s based off a quirky text by Hannis Brown, and is realized musically by pulling from contemporary classical, rock, and hip-hop, with a dramatically deranged performance by vocalist Seth Gilman.

Listen to an excerpt from I am a Fish here.

L: A Window to a Door focuses on a girl held in captivity. A subject, like Mary says, that is dark like my soul! The idea was too fascinating to pass up.  Our heroine’s lament is scored with violin, contrabass, and an electronic backtrack that clues the audience in to what is going on.

Listen to an excerpt from A Window to a Door here.

How did you (individually) approach the voice when writing these pieces? Did you feel a need to, as the name would suggest, experiment with the voice, or with the form, or at all?

M: The way I treated the voice was very much influenced by the choice to work with Seth Gilman as my soloist. I had seen Seth, who is primarily a baritone, give an entirely too convincing performance as a frightened mezzo-soprano, and this inspired me to write a piece that would utilize his extraordinary vocal range. It’s uniquely liberating to work with a vocalist who has very few limitations in pitch and is so open to tackle any musical challenges thrown his way.

L: I definitely needed a certain type of voice and actress for the scene I was setting. Soprano Meagan Brus shapes the character so much.  Working with her has taken the libretto to new heights.

Mary, your bio describes your work as “ranging from concert works to multimedia collaborations and film scores.” Do you find that opera is a place where these three areas merge? How, and to what degree?

Absolutely, though I do wish that opera would occasionally pull a little more from film. To be romantic about it, film has such an amazing ability to pull an audience out of reality and take them on a journey. I think it’s a combination of great storytelling, the ability to jump through time through smart editing and special FX, and perhaps the actual experience of going to the cinema: a screen and surround sound that are so larger than life that you can’t help but feel that you’re in the story. I sometimes wish viewing opera were more like this – that it would be less linear, make better use of the technology available to us, be more creative with surround sound and sound design (which is nothing new), and visually become more 3-dimensional by moving away from a constricting stage placed so far away from the audience. There’s so much to play with!

Leaha, your bio describes your music as “blending literature and visual art with experimental composition.” This suggests to me that there might be something operatic to everything that you write.  Is that fair to say?  How do you think such characteristics manifest themselves in your non-operatic work?

I never thought of it that way! I certainly pull a lot of my inspiration from books, paintings, and poetry. I’m working on an orchestra piece now that incorporates whispering and shouting into the score. So I guess there is a dramatic flair that finds its way into other forms.

What else can we expect from the New Shorts program? Are there any highlights we should be waiting for (without giving up any surprises, of course)?

L: Expect anything & everything! With ten new works we’ve got something for everyone.

M: Robots, Milli Vanilli, stamp collecting, a homemade electronic suitcase instrument, a phone call from Mom (seriously), teddy bear hugging, fish, a trio of sirens… it’s a diverse program!

* * *

Catch Mary, Leaha, and Hotel Elefant at Experiments In Opera’s “New Shorts” Saturday February 9th, 2013 at Issue Project Room in NYC. There also will be a Q and A conversation with all New Shorts composers moderated by James Holt at 6:30 before the concert.

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  1. Pingback: » Press Experiments In Opera

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