A maid’s song in Jacob Bancks’s new opera “Karkinos” has painfully relevant lyrics –

“Slowly, slowly, what is your hurry?

Little by little the bird builds a nest.

Patience obtains all things.

Sooner or later a seedling will climb.

Wait, and all that has life will flourish in time.”

Mezzo-soprano Kelly Hill (Maid) performing an aria from “Karkinos,” accompanied by composer Jacob Bancks.

Patience is certainly what we all need in the Covid era, as the premiere of “Karkinos” – a collaboration between the Quad City Symphony Orchestra and Living Proof Exhibit – again has been delayed, until February 2022. The opera, penned by Bancks (an Augustana associate professor of music), was first scheduled to be done May 10, 2020 at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center, Moline.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was moved to Feb. 12, 2021, but QCSO executive director Brian Baxter said because of the recent surge of Covid cases, the number of people to perform in and attend the opera, it made sense to postpone again.

“Covid is really bad right now; it wasn’t really going to work well, given the tight quarters this performance needs to be done in,” Baxter said recently. “For the safety of our musicians, guest artists, we didn’t feel like we could provide a safe enough environment in the next couple months to make that happen.”

In addition to three main vocal soloists, “Karkinos” calls for a chorus of 16 and orchestra of 15, and the premiere is meant to draw in many cancer patients and survivors in the audience. Moline-based Living Proof is a nonprofit that offers free programs that show the therapeutic benefits of the arts for those affected by cancer.

Baritone Nathaniel Sullivan (Angel) singing an aria from “Karkinos,” accompanied by composer Jacob Bancks.

“We didn’t want to do it if people are dealing with that, with friends and family who would feel uncomfortable attending,” Baxter said. “That, as much as the safety of musicians and artists, would be too much to make it happen.”

The QCSO and LPE discussed offering a virtual performance, with no in-person audience, but they decided against it, he noted.

“There’s a lot of different pieces to this project, and in talking with all the various artists, everyone involved, people get it and understand why we’re having to make this decision,” Baxter said. “The general consensus was, we want to do this the way it was intended.”

Pamela Crouch, executive director of Living Proof Exhibit, agreed totally to further postpone the community event – so that it can be as special as possible.

“Jacob interviewed over 30 people in the community,” she said of the work’s creation. “Because of that, everyone is invested in this. It’s

Pamela Crouch, a cancer survivor, is executive director of Living Proof Exhibit.

meant to reach people touched by cancer. Until it’s safe for us to gather in large groups again, it makes sense to wait.”

Bancks was commissioned in late 2018 to work on “Karkinos” (the Greek word for cancer), which aims to provide hope and celebration for those with cancer and all who love them.

Inspired by conversations he had in early 2019 with people impacted by cancer, the opera depicts a beautiful empress who is forced into battle with the monster Karkinos (a choir, representing cancer, invisible to the empress) the night before her coronation.

“It’s pretty amazing. It’s gorgeous,” Crouch said of the music. The opera will feature Sarah Shafer as the Empress (soprano), Kelly Hill as the Maid (mezzo soprano), and Nathaniel Sullivan as the Angel (baritone). The maid represents a cancer survivor, and the angel reflects the medical community. Bancks wrote the libretto as well.

“I’m trying to view this whole thing very optimistically, that we have more time and therefore we can make sure everything is even more spectacular than it would have been,” the composer said Monday, Nov. 16. “Which is far superior than trying to put on a performance under Covid restrictions.”

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“Masks and distancing and all that. I would rather postpone it as we have and try to enhance the performance,” Bancks said. “The people I talked to are being very careful with the pandemic, so we wouldn’t be able to have the people there that should be there.”

Two solo videos available

This past May, on the weekend of the original premiere date, the QCSO posted a video of Sullivan performing an angel’s aria, accompanied virtually (recorded in April) by Bancks on piano. Those lyrics sing of a nightingale deep in a forest –

“Beside a stream,

A nightingale is singing.

Dragonflies whisper below her,

While angels guard above.

Here will she sing forever.

She knows no song of sorrow,

She has no fear of monsters.

Her peace is perfect peace.”

Kelly Hill recorded her aria (remotely) with Bancks for the LPE’s September “Flourish” fundraiser. Her role represents cancer survivors and caretakers, while the angel represents medical professionals.

The opera “Karkinos” is a collaboration between the Quad City Symphony Orchestra and Living Proof Exhibit.

A prolific composer, who’s written for the QCSO before, Bancks has composed other vocal music, but this is his first opera and first time he’s penned his own text.

“It was mostly not difficult, because I knew I had a lot of freedom to change the text through the course of the composition process,” he said. “Almost all the text came fairly easy to me.”

The angel’s aria was the hardest to write, since it comes at the darkest moment of the opera, Bancks said. It was hard to find what he wanted to say “without seeming preachy or patronizing,” he said. “It’s easy when someone’s in a difficult situation to come up with useless things to say. The text of that aria, I wrote many texts, and most of it was useless advice to a woman in a very difficult situation.”

He decided sometimes the best thing to do in that instance is to tell a story, so the angel offers a consolation by telling about a nightingale, that could be seen as representing the empress.

“What he’s trying to do is take her out of her current situation and imagine a different place,” Bancks said.

The Bartlett Performing Arts Center at Moline High School opened in March 2019.

The opera is written as an allegorical fairy tale, in which the word “cancer” is never sung or spoken.

“If we were going to speak about cancer and I wanted to do an allegory, it had to become in a way, a character,” Bancks said. “This would have to be an enemy. The logical conclusion after that, because cancer is sort of pure evil – there’s nothing redeemable about it, then I would have a very difficult time constructing a human character that represents cancer.”

“It made more sense then to personify cancer, then, as a monster,” he said, noting the chorus changes through the story. “They have various vocal techniques.”

There are also false things that Karkinos says, Bancks said. “The monster taunts the empress and says things that are either not true or not certain, and she responds with fear, until she learns to understand he’s not truthful.”

For example, one survivor he spoke with is a veteran oncology nurse and then was diagnosed with cancer. She got the call when she had bought new clothes, and her first instinct was to return all the clothes, because she thought she was going to die, Bancks said.

“Those are the kind of lies that cancer tells that I tried to put into my monster’s mouth,” he said.

An early line the empress says is, “I don’t believe in monsters,” since cancer takes her by surprise. “This is something that’s unexpected,”

Bancks, associate professor of music at Augustana, earned his doctorate in composition from University of Chicago.

Bancks said. “It’s something they didn’t think would happen.”

He conceived Karkinos the chorus (as cancer) first to be offstage and unseen, but the plan now is for it to be visible to the audience, but invisible to the empress. There are three battles between them in the story.

Bancks was most inspired by English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) for “Karkinos,” a one-act work about 90 minutes in length.

“I relied a lot on his chamber operas,” he said, noting that there was no good place to put an intermission among the three main scenes. “I think there’s also an aspect of American musical theater in my opera that would seem foreign to a Britten opera.”

The maid’s aria about patience is coincidentally apt today. “It’s occurred to me every time we talked about delaying the opera,” Bancks said. “The way that patience came up was in our very first meeting, with a group of cancer survivors who have participated in Living Proof Exhibit. The word patience kept coming up, and Kelly Hill’s mom was among that group.”

“Enduring cancer requires an incredible amount of patience,” he said. “I felt like that was a very profound thing for the maid character to be

Brian Baxter is executive director of the Quad City Symphony.

able to offer, based on her own prior experience, and something she learned herself by someone else’s example.”

“It would have not occurred to me in a million years that such patience would be demanded of me, just to get to the performance of this work,” Bancks said. “It’s a great, unexpected surprise – anytime I get anxious about the performance schedule as it relates to the pandemic, I remind myself to take my own advice.”

That aria is after the empress’ first battle with Karkinos, after the monster has taken part of her flesh (which is analogous to a mastectomy for breast cancer). The maid has battled the monster in the past, feeling there’s much beyond her control.

The angel is very different – speaking his own language, which is how people often describe medical terminology, Bancks said. “I actually invented a language for the angel to sing, which is nice because you can choose the vowels that sound good in the different registers. He was really grateful when I put certain vowels in his upper register.”

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“Karkinos” also assumes greater weight during Covid, another invisible enemy (that’s contagious, unlike cancer) that now has killed a quarter-million Americans.

“The beauty of allegory is, it doesn’t need to be limited to what you’re originally talking about,” Bancks said. “Certainly, there are plenty of things about Karkinos the character that are relatable to coronavirus. If it were a coronavirus opera, it would be a very different opera – but I would hope that the comfort it offers somebody who fears or is suffering from cancer, is similar to the comfort it would offer someone with the experience of Covid.”

Community art to be featured

The premiere event in 15 months will include a public-art display in the Bartlett Center lobby at Moline High School, of a six-foot wingspan – made from small, individual paper feathers. Most were colored in a January 2020 public program led by Bettendorf artist and cancer survivor Gina Kirschbaum, who later assembled them all into the finished piece.

Soprano Sarah Shafer — who will play the Empress — soloed with the QCSO for the third time in October 2013.

For “Karkinos,” she painted a six-foot circular sunset on the water, to be on stage. The 150 feathers (made by people ranging from age 2 to 70s) will represent the collective strength of cancer survivors, and both art pieces will be donated to UnityPoint – Trinity and Genesis cancer centers following the premiere, Crouch said.

“To have that anticipation, it’s going to be a wonderful celebration,” she said recently. “The opera itself has already made an impact — people have talked about it, and the community continues to be engaged.”

“Given a full choir and an orchestra, and principals, it would be challenging for all of that, for the safety of all people on stage,” Crouch added of the need to postpone again. “Given our target audience, people who are immunocompromised, it makes more sense for us to postpone it.

“It can be a huge celebration in multiple ways – a beautiful opera, beautiful art, and we get to gather again,” she said. “It’s huge – for us to have to wait, for us to celebrate it the way should be celebrated, is OK.”

“Given the greater lead time we have before the performance, I’m hoping to expand things like the staging of the chorus,” said Bancks, a 38-year-old Minnesota native, who has seven kids with his wife (the oldest is 11), including a four-month-old.

Bettendorf artist and cancer survivor Gina Kirschbaum led creation of winged art for “Karkinos” in January 2020.

He made a video about the opera at Augie in summer 2019, which can be seen HERE.

The only other work of Bancks he’s had done in public since the pandemic was for the University of Iowa Virtual Dance Gala, held Nov. 13 and livestreamed without an in-person audience. That went really well, using two pre-existing pieces that Kristin Marrs choreographed, Bancks said.

“The coolest thing about what she did – she used a lot of silence, before my music begins,” he said. “It was really very moving and exciting. I wish I could have been there in person, but the videography is quite excellent.”

Those pieces were “Taxi Dancer” and “October” from 2015’s Five Pieces for Violin and Piano.

Bancks has never had any previous piece choreographed for dance. You can see the Iowa performance at https://virtualdance.studio.uiowa.edu/dance-gala/marrs-gala-2020. The composer, also an Eastman School alum, wrote “Into the Wild” for the QCSO in 2017; a bassoon concerto “Dream Variations,” in 2016; and “Rock Island Line” in 2014. The Philadelphia Orchestra and QCSO also have commissioned a new clarinet concerto Bancks is writing.

The QCSO held its November Masterworks concert at the Adler Theatre without an audience, featuring concertmaster Naha Greenholtz performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. You can buy digital access to the concert video through Dec. 8, at https://qcso.org/event/masterworks-ii-beethoven-violin-concerto/.

For more information on Jacob Bancks, visit jbancks.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.