Mimi Hilaire

On June 8, 2024 Synchromy presented a workshop reading of My Wings Burned Off, an opera by Jason V. Barabba opera with libretto by June Carryl. This was in conjunction with the 2024 Opera America conference held at various venues all around Los Angeles. The conference is a place for opera musicians, composers, conductors and administrators to meet each year to exchange ideas, techniques and to pitch new productions. This reading of My Wings Burned Off was held in the Grand Rehearsal Hall at the USC Colburn School of Music downtown. A twelve-piece string orchestra was on hand as well as Mimi Hilaire, the soprano soloist, all conducted by Dr. Renee Baker.

The opera follows the heartbreaking story of Oluwatoyin Salau, a young black woman from Tallahassee. She became a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and who was ultimately murdered at the hands of a black man. Librettist Carryl writes “I want other Black girls and women to know they matter. It meant everything to me that Jason wanted to tell her story again in this beautiful, brutal opera. Oluwatoyin Salau deserved better; she, they, we deserve better.”

My Wings Burned Off is a monodrama in one scene with ten parts. This performance included all of the singing and the orchestral score but there was no staging, scenery or acting. In any case, the music and libretto alone have sufficient power to sustain the relentless story line. Mimi Hilaire displayed an impressive combination of stamina and control, singing for the better part of an hour. The string orchestra included a number of leading Los Angeles musicians and Ms. Hilaire, at times, had to work to keep the vocals in the foreground. The soprano sings the dramatic libretto and the orchestra comments and adds appropriate atmospherics as the text unfolds. There is generally an abstract distance between the voice and the strings, and this highlights the severity of the story line.

The point of view is first person, with furious lines from Ms. Salau such as “What do I got to do to be human? What I gotta do? I can’t go nowhere, I can’t do nothing, can’t say nothing without being BLACK.” Frustration and anger cry out everywhere in the strings, effectively multiplying the dramatic impact of the text. The voice sings “The scream in my throat becomes a roar.” and the accompaniment echoes with a series of high, searing pitches. Whenever Salau mentions her mother, however, the strings turn soft and supportive. The story unfolds in seemingly disjointed sections, and this adds to the tension. This piece hammers the heart like a Baroque Passion, the words and the music delivering unsparing anguish.

For this reading, the full libretto was printed in the concert program and this was a great help. The vocals often occupied the same register as the many accompanying strings and Ms. Hilaire’s rich voice often blended into the mixture. The orchestra was just a few feet from the soloist and a dozen or so feet from the audience, so in an actual opera hall there will likely be enough sonic separation for better clarity. But unless the story is well known in advance by the listener, it would be a challenge to apprehend the dramatic arc without closely following the text. A printed libretto or captions on a projection screen would allow reading the words while hearing the music. This was the most effective way for me to follow the story and appreciate its power.

My Wings Burned Off is as an unflinching look at the hard reality that prevails for young Black activist women in our society today. Oluwatoyin Salau deserved better, as this opera powerfully testifies.

Jason Barabba and June Carryl

Photos courtesy of Synchromy