Jason Zencka(Photo: Courtesy of Amy Anderson Photography)
STEVENS POINT The Portage County Circuit Court has to be one ofthe least likely settings for an opera.
Yet here it is: An original-cast recording of "Voire Dire,"set to be released in CD and by digital streaming services on Aug. 7. "Voire Dire" the title means a preliminary examination of a witness or juror depicts a single day in a fictional courtroom set in central Wisconsin, and it wasinspired by what happened more than a decade ago in the Portage County courthouse.
The work was created by college friends and collaborators Jason Zencka, a reporter for the Stevens Point Journal in 2006 and 2007, and Matthew Peterson, a Swedish/American composer. The two met each other when they attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Peterson composed the music and Zencka wrote the liberetto, or text, of the piece shortly after Zencka left Stevens Point and moved to Washington, D.C.
The opera was performed in 2017 by the Fort Worth Opera, and the original cast of singers recorded the work in June 2018 in a Minnesota Public Radio studio. The album will be released through RedHouse Studios, a music label created by Peterson and another partner, and it's funded through the help of 100 crowd-funded financial supporters and the Swedish Arts Council.
The whole thing is a little surreal, and when Zencka was sitting in the courtroom, taking notes, he said he never would have guessed that the experience would end up as a musical work of art.
"I loved the job.I loved being a reporter at the time, and I wanted to be a good reporter. That's all I was thinking about," Zencka said. "But I have been writing since I was a kid. It was part of how I made sense of the day."
It was unlikely that Zencka became a reporter in the first place. When he was in high school, he toyed with the idea of becoming a pastor. So he studied classical languages, Greek and Latin, at St. Olaf.
He met Peterson there. Peterson, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, and he hit it off, and they collaborated on an opera when they were students, a piece based on the story of Isaac and Abraham of the Bible's Old Testament.
While Zencka was studying in Northfield, his mother, the Rev. Susan Gilbert Zencka, became pastor of Frame Presbyterian Church in Stevens Point. He found and got the reporting job at the Stevens Point Journal with the help of her connections in the community.
Zencka said he was still working in Stevens Point when Peterson approached him again to collaborate on another opera. Peterson was looking to move to Sweden through a Fulbright program and thought the work could help his cause.
It worked. Or at least it didn't hurt his cause. He moved to Sweden shortly after and has been living there ever since, Zencka said.
"Voire Dire" CD cover(Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Peterson)
When he was brainstorming for ideas with Peterson, he started to think about what he saw and heard in the courthouse. They decided that it could work for their piece.
The courthouse "is a particular place with particular cultural signifiers," Zencka said."You're getting this tawdry, pulpy, almost raw, stuff of life and you are filtering it through this kind of sung language. It seemed like a good match."
The people at the Forth Worth Opera thought so. Almost a decade after Peterson and Zencka wrote "Voire Dire," the company chose the work as one to refine and perform.
It was a strange feeling seeing the words he wrote being performed on stage, Zencka said. "It's kind of like stumbling on a home video that you haven't seen for a long time. I had matured in every possible way."
After Zencka left Stevens Point, he worked for a while as an investigator for the public defenders office in Washington, D.C. He then moved on to earn a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, and became a high school English teacher, first in the Twin Cities area, now in Syracuse, New York. He is married and the father of a baby boy.
He has written through it all. Zencka has had several short stories published in the past few years, and is refining a novel before sending it to publishers.
Zencka still looks back on his time in Stevens Point with a wistful feeling. He learned so much, he said.
"I saw plenty of things in the courtroom that shocked and saddened me," he said. "I also saw a lot of wonderful people in the community wrestling with how to do right in an impossible situation."
To learn more about "Voir Dire" and to preorder the album, people can log on to Matthew Peterson's website: http://www.matthew-peterson.com/voir-dire-album.
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Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.
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