American opera double bill on Shepherd School fall schedule

Rice University’s Shepherd School Opera Studies Department will present not one, but two American operas — “Taking Up Serpents” by composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye, and “Proving Up” by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek — during its fall production.

Photo credit: Rice University Shepherd School of Music

Photo credit: Rice University Shepherd School of Music

All performances will take place in Wortham Opera Theatre in Rice’s Alice Pratt Brown Hall. Performances on Nov. 1 and Nov. 5 will be at 7:30 p.m., and a Nov. 3 performance will be at 2 p.m.

“Taking up Serpents” is an exploration of faith, both as it relates to religion and family. The story centers around 25-year-old Kayla, the estranged daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher who was bitten by one of his own snakes. Kayla’s journey home forces her to confront her troubled upbringing. Shepherd School Opera will present the second production of this new work, which premiered in January.

“Proving Up,” based on a short story by acclaimed author Karen Russell, is an opera about the American dream and how pursuing it could have tragic consequences even when people do everything right. Told through the story of Nebraskan homesteaders in the 1870s, this powerful work has already been staged in multiple productions less than two years after its premiere.

“We are living in the midst of a golden age of new American opera,” said Michael Heaston, director of Opera Studies at Rice. “Shepherd School students have the opportunity to learn and perform two one-act operas composed by two women who are rising stars in the genre. The programming of these two works as a double bill about the American dream is the first time they will appear side by side in any theater.”

Guest conductor Steven Osgood will lead the orchestra. The operas will be staged by guest stage director Alison Moritz. Both operas contain content and language intended for mature audiences.

Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students and senior citizens. To purchase tickets, call 713-348-8000. More information is available online at

Audience members at the Nov. 1 performance are invited to a pre-curtain discussion with Mazzoli, Sankaram, Vavrek and Dye beginning at 6:30 p.m. in Room 1133

“Taking Up Serpents” and “Proving Up” were commissioned by the Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and first produced at the Kennedy Center during the 2018-19 and 2017-18 seasons, respectively.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.