Opera Orlando at the premiere of “The Secret River” composed by UCF professor Stella Sung

This Friday, Opera Orlando will present its first new commissioned work based on the book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The secret river. The music for the opera was composed by Professor Pegasus Stella Sung, director of the UCF Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology and Entertainment.

Sung was first featured at The secret river when a friend drew his attention to the children’s book. As a native Floridian, she was already familiar with Rawlings’ earlier work and was moved by the charming story and its imaginative and hopeful protagonist.

“The world seen through a young person’s innocence and imagination and her creative process, her determination to help her family and community, and her joy and hopeful outlook have captured our minds and hearts” , writes Sung in the opera program.

As an award-winning composer nationally and internationally, Stella Sung’s compositions are performed in the United States and abroad.

The secret river follows Calpurnia, a young girl living near Cross Creek, Florida during the Great Depression. When her family is going through a difficult time, she turns to Mother Albirtha, a wise woman who lives in the forest for advice. Mother Albirtha tells Calpurnia that a secret river is full of fish that she can find using her imagination. On her journey to find the river, she learns the power to trust her imagination and the goodness within us all – a profound lesson for young onlookers.

“It’s a story about family and community, and using your imagination and your creative powers to reveal all the wonders hidden inside of yourself,” says Sung.

The book and the opera shed light on the life of Floridians in the center of the Great Depression. In addition to the stock market crash of October 1929, agriculture was negatively affected by an infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies that same year, killing most of the state’s citrus crops.

“The economic boom associated with South Florida land sales ended after investors lost confidence in the Miami Hurricane of 1926 and Hurricane Okeechobee of 1928,” says Professor Associate Professor of History Connie Lester. “Central Florida has benefited from the South Florida ‘boom’ and has also felt the effects of the ‘crisis’.

The secret river is also notable for being avant-garde for its time. The book was originally published in 1955, a time when the story of a struggling African American family with a young black girl as a central figure was revolutionary. English teacher Anna Lillios attributes this to Rawlings’ collaborations with other female artists.

“Rawlings made history in 1947, after she became friends with Zora Neale Hurston,” says Lillios. “Hurston enlightened Rawlings about the breed and, perhaps, was the source of Rawlings’ insistence that Calpurnia would not speak in a dialect. Luckily, world-renowned songwriter Stella Sung realized how much of a gem this story is, and how much her empowerment message would appeal to our Central Florida audience.

The secret river will take place December 17-19 at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Click here to book tickets.

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