Librettist Deborah DEEP Mouton is the future of opera

Interview with Deborah DEEP Mouton

Former Houston Poet Laureate and rising librettist, Deborah DEEP Mouton, is making waves on the national opera scene through her new residency with American Lyric Theater in New York.

This summer, Mouton was selected from hundreds of applicants to be one of six resident artists – and one of only three librettists – in ALT’s Composer Librettist Development Program, said to be the only full-time training program for both composers and librettists in the U.S.

With simultaneous projects in the literary, classical music, and theater worlds, Mouton has also written a one-act play, The World’s Intermission, which has its World Premiere on November 12 and 13 at Jones Hall, as part of Society for the Performing Arts’ Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

Recently, I interviewed Deborah DEEP Mouton about:

her journey from poetry to opera

what the ALT residency means to her as artist

equity in opera

her desire to tell more stories of Black joy

& her dream of producing someday on Broadway

Listen to our conversation (audio above) or read the transcript (below).

This interview took place in October, and a portion of it originally aired on Houston Matters. It has been edited for clarity and length.

CATHERINE LU: Deborah DEEP Mouton, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Congratulations as well on your new residency, which we’ll be talking about – your residency in New York.

DEBORAH DEEP MOUTON: Thank you.

LU: You know, I want to start off with talking about your evolution as an artist because you have very strong roots in the performance poetry world – as a world champion slam poet, who then went on to become a Houston Poet Laureate.

You’re also an accomplished published poet. Your recent collection Newsworthy has received honors, and it was translated into German recently as well.

And in recent years, you’ve become a librettist. You’ve written two librettos for Houston Grand Opera, including Marian’s Song, which made a splash right before the pandemic as a world premiere. And then you’ve written a storybook opera called Lula, The Mighty Griot just last year.

So I want to say, because I have interviewed you and followed your career, this journey makes complete sense to me [laughs]. But I would love to hear you, you know, talk about it in your own terms. How did this evolution happen? And how do you sort of explain and understand your own journey thus far? How did you get interested in writing librettos?

MOUTON: Yeah, I think you may be the only person that this makes sense to you – I’m just saying [laughs]! You know, I see myself as a literary artist. And in the way that painters have paint and may have, you know, different kinds of paint, I think words are my medium. And so, I’ve really started to embrace that working across multiple genres is kind of what I was always made to do, you know.

I think from a very young age, I was always a storyteller. I would have crazy, little mini books that I would write in middle school that had like, clowns attacking people and all kinds of fictional things. So I think I always wanted to be a fiction writer. I then went into poetry, and that made total sense because it was kind of the same palette, but maybe a different – a different base. And so I really fell in love with poetry. And I think I stayed so tightly wound to poetry for so long because, you know, I kind of was getting praised in the way that people were really resonating with the work. And I found that it was also transforming me in a lot of ways, and making me very specific and very detailed, and think through the emotional timbre of the work more.

And so now I think that this next iteration – or this next experimentation in a new base – is leaning more towards stage work, you know. I was a young actress, you know, and worked in community theater for a while, and always kind of had an idea that some stories were just made to be told in the physical body as well. And I did play classical piano, and sang and traveled with a few gospel choirs and things. And so, I think that song has also been really heavy in my work and rhythm. So for me, opera kind of is the place where all of those things converge – where you can start thinking about the physicality of the work, as well as the, just, amazingness of the human voice and how it bends and moves and holds emotion.

And so I think I’m playing right now, you know. I have some straight theater coming out as well. I have a production going up at Jones Hall [on November 12 and 13] called The World’s Intermission. People can buy tickets if they’re interested on the [Society for the Performing Arts] website, SPAHouston.org. But for me, it’s really just thinking about, as I consider new stories, what do I feel like those stories want to be? How do they need to be told? I think some need to be told through movement, and some need to be told through a poem, and some need to be told through a song. And the more that I really listen to the work, the more that I’m able to really tap into what, you know, the broadness of maybe what my career will end up being.

Photo by Houstonia Magazine

LU: I want to ask you specifically – I mean, we can go in so many different directions with your artwork and and your projects right now – but to focus specifically on your evolution toward libretto writing. You were recently selected for a two-year residency at the American Lyric Theater in New York City. This is kind of a prestigious incubator program, if you will. It’s called the Composer Librettist Development Program. So tell me what this residency, which has begun, what does it mean for you in this chapter of your journey as an artist?

MOUTON: Absolutely. You know, I think that as we play [as artists] there’s a tendency to kind of, like, be self-taught in a lot of ways. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think a lot of my career has been self-taught. I mean, my first libretto was definitely taught from pulling libretti examples from Google, you know, and trying to learn the form. And so there’s nothing wrong with that. But as I really started to play more and more, I realized that there was a vernacular and a way to communicate with my composers that I was missing. And I really wanted to just take the time to dedicate to that …

I think what it means the most for me is just the time to focus fully, you know. Someone said to me one time that the root word of “amateur” is the same root word for the word “amour.” And the idea is that to be an amateur in something is to be in love with it all over again. And I think that I wanted to fall in love with opera in that way. I wanted to understand it in-and-out. I didn’t want to have happy accidents that were just successful, but I wanted to be intentional in what I was creating and putting on stage. And the only way for me to really be able to do that is to know what came before it, and what’s being worked on in the field and, you know, who are the people who are making noise – and how can I be one of those people that continues to kind of move the artform forward.

LU: You’ll be traveling back and forth between New York and Houston for this residency over the next couple of years. We’re talking on October 7th, so I know the residency has begun. The first part of it was in New York, and you just got back. Tell me a little bit about that experience – and what  kind of creative juices and experiences are you already starting to have?

MOUTON: Yeah, I mean, it kind of was a whirlwind, to be honest with you. We landed one day, and then I think we were in class the next morning and kind of just ran it all the way to the last day. We had a nice option of things to do. We went and saw Come From Away on Broadway, which was nice. It was my first theater piece that I actually got to see on Broadway, even though I’ve seen some Broadway productions here in Houston when they traveled and toured. But just to be there on Broadway and be able to see that work was really inspiring, and kind of kicked up for me all kinds of things that I could even do as a director with limited space – and thinking about, you know, limited props, but how do I transition characters and things of that nature.

We also got to see Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which is historically the Met Opera’s first piece that’s been composed by a Black composer and Black librettist team. Terence Blanchard is the composer [and Kasi Lemmons is the librettist]. And just to be able to see that moment where Black people were standing on a stage that, you know, historically we wouldn’t have been able to enter the building. And we got to hold up two and a half hours of an audience’s attention. I think that showed me that there’s space in this world that’s moving forward at least, if temporary or not, you know, that’s allowing us to have permission to create things that show our lives and our stories on stages that are that large. So that was really huge.

Artistic team of Houston Grand Opera’s “Marian’s Song,” which premiered March 2020: Damien Sneed (composer), Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton (librettist), Dennis Whitehead Darling (director) / Photo by Carleen Graham

LU: I want to get your thoughts on the future of opera – both as an art form but also as an industry, in terms of representation and inclusion. And you gave that sort of, you know, powerful memory of going to the Met – I mean the Met itself, finally in its history performing Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera by a Black composer for the first time.

I want to set up this question with even a little bit more context because, interestingly, with this residency that you’re in with the American Lyric Theatre, they themselves have changed a few things about this residency to make it more accessible and to reach out to a wider range of voices – by, this year, for the first time not requiring residency in New York City so that artists from all over the country can apply, as well as offering a $20,000 stipend for each year of the residency, again, to reduce barriers to the participation in the program.

And as a result, according to their press release, the applications increased by 53%. Fifty percent were women, 40% were BIPOC artists this year, applying for it … and that percentage doubled, in terms of BIPOC applicants. And of the six new artists selected, five are BIPOC artists and three are women.

Another sort of fun fact, if you will, that I’ll throw in is – here in Houston – Houston Grand Opera, just to give one local example, has announced a new general director, Khori Dastoor, the first person of color to lead that company in that particular position. So given these kinds of headlines and statistics – as an artist actually working in the field, how do you feel that is actually translating for change in the opera world? And what do you think is the future of opera in terms of diversity?

MOUTON: Yeah, I think, you know, the more that I learned, the more that I’m realizing that opera has had some really problematic roots, right? I mean, I think all of us kind of probably come to opera with an understanding – or an expectation more – that it has had, you know, a certain feeling of elitism, a certain feeling of classism and inaccessibility, especially when it comes to people who don’t make a certain amount of money.

And, you know, I think that opera really is on the cusp of a very large change or a very large decline. I think there really has been some genuine effort to figure out, how do we invest in the new generation of opera lovers? And for a lot of people that’s going to have to be including voices of people of color, of women, of LGBTQIA-identifying folks. You know, there’s going to have to be kind of a reckoning of their own in opera. And I think that’s really what we’re seeing, you know. A lot of ALT and the staff has said they feel like we’re at a point of a renaissance in opera where, you know, almost anything is possible now. We have to figure it out. There’s been a large thrust of new commissions that hasn’t happened in decades in opera … a lot more companies are actually commissioning brand new works that are more representative of the people who would be watching opera now.

So on the inside of it, I think that there’s always a push and pull between that. It’s always, you know, being grateful for opportunities opening, and grateful for new people letting you in and wanting to praise you and teach you and lead you. And in the same breath, it’s the skepticism that comes with being an artist of color on the back end of what happened last year, and really thinking about, you know, people’s intentions – and those are things that we can’t control, nor can we always understand. But I think, as an artist of color, when I walk into an opportunity, I’m always interested to find out how much of it is leaning towards using me as the face of a change that they don’t really want to have happen, but they know is trendy, and how much of it is real change.

And, you know, from what I’ve gleaned from American Lyric Theater, this has been a big step in the direction of real change. And for those of us who are willing to kind of walk those steps with them, and kind of push this in a new pioneering way to kind of reclaim opera for the people, I think that there is space for us. It just may take some resistance, and so we have to be ready for that.

I think another really great point about this residency is that, you know, even though they opened the field to the whole nation, three of the people they picked are from Texas. So I think that it also says something for Texans, right? That we are, you know, the home of major opera houses like HGO, which I think is the fifth largest opera house in the nation. And every major city in Texas has an opera house, which is not what can be said about everywhere. And so I think there are some roots here that, you know, Texans can kind of latch onto, that people of color can latch onto. It really is a great vehicle for storytelling. And I think that as we tap into it more and more, and as new audiences start to see new works come out that defy their expectations, I really do believe that opera is kind of perched to make a really big change and a really big statement when used right.

LU: And that potentially Texans and Houstonians are helping lead the way.

MOUTON: Absolutely.

LU: The future is Texas [laughs].

MOUTON: Yeah, the future has always been Texas, right [laughs]?

LU: What kind of stories do you want to tell?

MOUTON: You know, it’s funny. I think that my answer to this has changed in the last week, so it’s interesting that you’re asking me this now.

I think a week ago I would have told you, definitely I just want to tell authentic Black stories. I think that’s true, but specifically in opera with some of the practices that have happened in the past – and for those who don’t know, there have been performers that have performed in blackface in opera, there’s been quite a bit of misogyny in some of the pieces – and so I think, you know, as a Black woman, I definitely have a heart to kind of right some of those wrongs in some of my writing.

I think right now I’m really addicted to the idea of Black joy and finding spaces where we get to be victorious and redeemable and valuable, you know. It is easier to write about Black trauma because I think sometimes that sadness is a more universal emotion than some others – or maybe more accessible than others, especially in times of trial. You know, we’ve had a few hard years, and I think everyone remembers sadness and despair a little bit more than we would like to, and it’s easy to write and stay there.

But I want to play with nostalgia, you know, I want to play with joy, I want to make you smile. And it’s okay to have a contrasting, sad moment. But I think I want pieces that live in the full spectrum of what it means to be Black. And that’s something I think I’m still striving to pin down exactly, but it’s something that I want to investigate.

Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Marian Anderson in Houston Grand Opera’s “Marian’s Song,” by composer Damien Sneed & librettist Deborah DEEP Mouton / photo by Lynn Lane

LU: So what are your thoughts on the future of opera as an art form? And ask you that partly because I know that you, yourself, have combined spoken word with opera in Marian’s Song, for example. But how else do you see the art form evolving around you? And how are you, yourself, maybe experimenting and hope to shape it?

MOUTON: Yeah, I think a lot of what is to come really was reflected last year [when] Opera America started articulating a new definition of opera, which was a narrative set to trained voices. And while that seems broad to some, I think that it really does shift what’s accessible, because those trained voices could sing jazz, right? Those train voices could be beat boxers. I think that there’s just so much room to play that some companies are really making room for us to just experiment and see how far we can push the envelope. And I’m sure that there will be some people who say that’s not opera. And that’s okay. They’re imagining some woman with a Viking hat on singing, you know, over Bugs Bunny or something.

But there really is a place to show authentic and beautiful stories in opera, and I’m kind of excited about that. And I think that’s what really draws me to the field is the fact that I don’t think that what I want to do has been done yet – and the fact that there is room for the musicality of the voice, even in spoken text. I think those things make me excited that this might be a space that I can do something revolutionary and something inventive, and blaze a new trail for people who are looking behind me.

And so, you know, when it comes to the future of opera, I think it’s bright. And I think it’s bright as long as we continue to move into the direction of progress. I think last year, at the end of the summer, we had a lot of companies making statements that were pro-Black and pro-AAPI and pro-insert other oppressed group that they felt was trendy enough to talk about. And I think that when those sentiments are really taken to heart and really chased after, then opera has a long life ahead of it. And so I’m hoping that those things are true. My inner optimist wants to believe that the world is changing, and I can’t wait to see how it changes even in opera.

LU: I want to end with this … I know that you have another dream, which is to get to Broadway someday.

MOUTON: Yes.

LU: So, tell me a little bit about that dream, and what that would mean to you and how that fits in your journey that you’re in the midst of?

MOUTON: I love that you asked this question. Let’s go [laughs]!

So I’ll take you back a little bit. I think in my late 20s, I was a very big “list” person … of creating goals for myself that I wanted to accomplish. And I told myself by 40 I wanted to be the Poet Laureate of Houston, Texas. And at 32, I was the Poet Laureate of Houston, Texas! And I really kind of was at a point where I was very confused. I was very happy, but also I felt like this thing that I had been kind of chasing for the last five years of my life, it happened. And then what, right? There’s this thing when you when you reach your goals, it’s like, well, what do I do now?

And I started thinking about the things that I wanted even as a small child, and the things that I wanted to see, and falling in love with pieces like The Whiz … thinking about creating musicals or creating theater that lived in bigger spaces. And I think when all of us think of, you know, the epitome of theater, it’s Broadway in some sense.

And so for me, the older I’ve gotten, the more that I’ve realized that really is a goal that not only in some fantastical place in my mind I’m like, that might be amazing to do one day, but that it’s maybe closer than I imagined it is. Many operas actually had runs on Broadway, you know, earlier in the history of opera. And I think there is a place for work that’s so accessible that it can live there.

I also think, though, that it totally might not be an opera, right? It might be something that is just more of a theater piece that people really connect to, you know. I’m currently working on a choreopoem centered on the life of Lauren Anderson, the first Black prima ballerina of the Houston Ballet. And I think of pieces like that, I think about their universality and how people can take away things from them without ever needing to know Lauren personally but being able to feel her experience. And I think that’s something that I want to offer the world. And so, you know, where does it fall in my canon? You know, it falls wherever I get the opportunity.

I don’t think I’m so much of a stickler to goals as I was before, even though I may have them in my head. I think for me now, it’s a little bit more about enjoying the journey, you know. I’ve definitely crossed some things off of my literary bucket list of things that I wanted to accomplish. And now I really do feel like I’m living kind of in the sprinkles part of the sundae – where, you know, I kind of did the ice cream and I’m looking forward to all the extra flourishes that life gives me. And I’m kind of really hoping that Broadway is one of them.

LU: The cherry on top [laughs], to finish the metaphor .

MOUTON: Yeah [laughs].

LU: Well, Deborah DEEP Mouton, thank you so much for, you know, talking with me about your hopes and dreams, honestly, and art and opera and the future – the future of diversity and and art in this country as well. Thank you so much for talking with me.

MOUTON: No, thank you for having me. I always enjoy talking to you, Catherine.

LU: You too.

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