For Life

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PREMIERE: Feb. 19, 9:00p ET

The video premiere will go live here
9:45p ET

A Talkback session will follow the premiere of this opera. 
Go behind the scenes, ask questions, give feedback, and learn about the process of bringing the new operas to life in unique and
challenging circumstances with the Creative Team and Artists.


Liam – young adult male – baritone

Leyna – his mother – soprano
Dr. Mannsplain – psychiatrist
Eliza Nocebo – Drug sales rep – coloratura soprano

Nurse Grace – Soprano
Michael, Rachael, Katy, Angel; patients and forest figures Chorus - SATB quartet



Scene I 
Liam, plagued by nightmares and insomnia, wakes from a troubling dream in which he is wandering, lost, in the woods as the trees watch him. He reflects on how he had been rebuilding his troubled life when he was given help that made things “a thousand times worse.” He drifts into fitful, dream-filled sleep.


Scene II
In his dream, Liam wanders, lost, on a path in a dark forest. Suddenly he comes across a large white building, a psychiatric clinic. A nurse greets him and tells him he has "reached his destiny." Inside the clinic, other patients are being attended by a psychiatrist, Dr. Mannsplain. After briefly questioning the patients, he prescribes each of them with a magic potion. After questioning Liam, Dr. Mannsplain concludes that Liam’s nervous system is “very nervous indeed” and that his brain is not normal but rather  “diseased.” The nurse hands Liam a prescription. Liam asks whether there are side effects, and Dr. Mannsplain introduces Eliza Flower, a drug company representative, who reads a list of horrifying side effects. Liam interrupts, asking, “Why would anyone take these?” Eliza replies, “Would you rather be lost in the woods for life?” Dr. Mannsplain evades answering Liam’s question, giving flowery descriptions of diagnosis as a metaphor and a way to give a scientific name to the pain of being human; it is best if the patient does not know what is wrong. Eliza offers the medical term for not knowing – “anosognosia.” The nurse encourages Liam to trust the doctor. After reflecting on his doubts about whether pills are the solution to his searching for the right path, Liam takes the pill bottle and returns to the woods.


Scene III 
Liam has returned to the woods. Believing Dr. Mannsplain’s proclamation that his broken mind is the cause of his being lost, he takes one of the pills. He sees a light and begins to follow it, but the light begins moving haphazardly. Liam becomes disoriented. Suddenly his mother, Leyna, appears and, shocked by his condition, asks him what he is doing in the woods.  Hardly hearing her, Liam becomes more and more desperate, pacing wildly, unable to stop his racing mind or body. Leyna urges him to return to the clinic. Reluctantly, he agrees and she leads him back. 


Scene IV
As Leyna and Liam enter the clinic,  Liam is now in worse condition than when he left.   Leyna points out to the nurse that the prescription has made Liam ill.  The nurse suggests that Leyna is obstructing Liam’s treatment and that his condition is caused by Leyna’s childhood abuse of Liam, telling Leyna that the medication will unmask his illness. Leyna feels she is trapped in a "portal of madness." The nurse assures Liam that the doctor will “make it make sense.” Dr. Mannsplain reluctantly agrees to listen to Leyna’s question, checking his watch and pointing out that he cannot tell her anything. He evades answering her questions and speaks of metaphors in diagnosis. Leyna calls him out on his evasiveness and tells him the medications are hurting Liam. Eliza declares that Leyna has no proof;  Dr. Mannsplain suggests that Leyna is hiding something and is at fault for not raising Liam well.  Leyna asks Mannspoain what would happen if he took the potions he prescribes: “If you took these potions, what would you see? How white would your white coat be? Would your madness be revealed?” Dr. Mannsplain replies coldly, “Can I help you ma’am?” Leyna reflects how her son has changed from the child and adult she knew. Nurse Grace tells her that she must accept her son’s permanent illness; her own son is gone now, and she hopes Leyna can be spared that fate.


Meanwhile, Liam has been pacing and ruminating in the background, unaware of the conversation going on around him. Suddenly he declares that he has changed his mind and wants to leave the clinic. But Dr. Mannsplain and Nurse Grace tell him that they will decide his fate; but if he will just take a pill, he can go. Dr. Mannsplain points out how prescribing is an art, not a science and that there are no tests or X-rays involved. Eliza pipes in that medical professionals are required by law to prescribe the potions. Liam adamantly refuses. Nurse Grace begins to reveal her ambivalence about the medication, but since her son refused the medication and took his own life, she is unsure of what to believe. Nevertheless, they keep Liam in the clinic, and Leyna, horrified, is forced to leave.


Scene V 
Leyna wanders in the woods. She is living a nightmare where no one listens or hears. Suddenly, four figures emerge from the woods. At first, they praise her for her strength; but they then proceed to berate her for questioning the doctor, saying she is “not smart” and that she must accept her son’s permanent illness: “Who are you to question this art?”  Leyna counters their accusations; they retreat into the woods. Leyna, furious, reflects that she is the one who has known Liam from before his birth, while the doctor observes him for a moment and diagnoses him for a lifetime. Now the four patients who had been in the clinic earlier appear. The doctor had promised relief from life struggles through the potions, but instead, they developed even worse long-term side effects. They only wanted to live again but were prescribed poison to numb their pain. Now they find their support and hope in each other and are moving towards healing and light. 


Scene VI
Nurse Grace, Dr. Mannsplain, Eliza, and Liam suddenly appear in the woods, joining Leyna. Liam feels he has passed through the portal of madness and that his old identity has been replaced with a label of insanity. Leyna, furious, turns on the doctor and nurse, asking them what right they have to strip her son of his birthright. Dr. Mannsplain tells her not to be ashamed of her son. “It’s in the genes, you know, although we have not found the precise gene yet,” he says, as Eliza nods in disappointment. Leyna chides them for turning human suffering into a profit-making business venture. The nurse, finally willing to speak out, agrees with Leyna. She reflects on how she has seen so many young lives ruined after being told to take medications they did not want, suffering damage to their bodies and souls. Dr. Mannsplain finally admits that he does not know what to do other than giving medications when patients come to him for help. “They come for answers; how can we fail them?” The nurse reminds him that he has something to give other than potions. He realizes now that “We’re not lost in the woods; we’re learning to journey.” Eliza, irate that Dr. Mannsplain and Nurse Grace have denied not only “science” but have also refused to accompany her into the “portal of madness,” rejecting her offers of wealth and fame, curses them all with “anosognosia” and disappears through the portal of madness. 


Finally, Liam finds his voice. “We can’t escape pain; we just need someone to share it.” Dr. Mannsplain regrets the damage he has caused and asks what he can do. “Don’t try to save me,” Liam says, but rather "just be with me.” The injured patients reappear, and Dr. Mannsplain and Nurse Grace join them in expressing how life includes “all voices, visions, sorrow, and care; they are spokes on the wheel towards the future we share.” They fade into the woods.

Leyna and Liam remain in the woods alone. Leyna tells Liam how she saw his face before he was born and asks how he will find his way out of the woods. Liam replies, “We can’t know the future” and tells Leyna that he will find her, that they will be with each other for life. As they sing the final words, the forest begins to fade as Liam awakens. 


Contemplating the dream he has just had, Liam rises, and with Leyna, he looks out the window and turns to the light of a new day.



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Dawn Sonntag

Dawn Sonntag's music intimately connects her listeners with the people, places, and personal experiences that inspire and inform her work. Her works have been commissioned and performed by Cleveland Opera Theater, the Hartford Opera Theater, and Opera from Scratch in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the Almeda Trio; the Fairbanks Arts Festival resident ensembles Corvus and Concert Black and String Symphony;  the Delgani, Del Sol, and Amphion String Quartets, the Orchid Ensemble in Vancouver, Canada; and by university, church and community choirs across the U.S.  Her art songs have been recorded by Michelle Murray Viertek and Megan Ihnen on the Albany and Parma labels and are included in the new Modern Music for New Singers: 21st Century Art Song. Sonntag has been honored as the Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year in both Washington State (2021) and Ohio (2010). Her first opera, Verlorene Heimat, for which she also composed the libretto, is a finalist in the 2021 American Prize for opera composition.  Featured at the 2018 Cleveland Opera Theater {NOW} Festival, Verlorene Heimat is based on her mother-in-law’s refugee experiences during WWII.

Sonntag has been composer/performer-in-residence at the Youngstown State University New Music Festival, Christopher Newport University, and the Visby International Centre for Composers in Visby, Sweden, where she was the 2019 recipient of a Swedish government intercultural exchange fellowship. Sonntag has also been the recipient an American-Scandinavian Foundation creative grant and a U.S. government Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship for advanced study of Norwegian at Oslo University to further her interest in Scandinavian vocal music, and as winner of the Kenwood Symphony’s Masters Aria and Concerto competition she performed Grieg’s orchestrated art songs in Norwegian. An avid Alpine hiker and lover of the outdoors.  She has been a three-time participant in the Composing in the Wilderness program in Alaska. 


Self-taught on piano until the age of 18, Sonntag joined the music staff at the Milwaukee Ballet Company at the age of 20. She has performed extensively as a collaborative pianist with professional singers, instrumentalists, and choirs. She began vocal studies with Yolanda Marculescu at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and has performed opera, oratorio, art song, and jazz in Germany and the U.S. She was winner of the Inge Pitler Prize for lied performance in both piano and voice at the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik in Heidelberg, ​Sonntag has conducted university, community, and church choirs across the U.S. and in Germany and Norway. ​

Sonntag holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in voice performance and composition from the University of Minnesota; a Master of Music in choral conducting from the Ohio State University; an Individualized Master of Arts from Antioch University’s McGregor School of the Arts in Tübingen, Germany; a graduate artist diploma in lied and chamber music piano performance from the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik, Heidelberg; and a Bachelor of Music in voice performance from the University of Texas at El Paso. She also studied composition in Paris, France under the auspices of the European American Musical Alliance. Sonntag is a lecturer in music composition at Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma, Washington) and has also taught at Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington), the University of Saint Catherine (St. Paul, MN.) and at Hiram College (near Cleveland, OH), where she also served as chair of the Music Department and was the recipient of several teaching and creative scholarship awards.

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Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels.

Kermit Cole