Award-wining composer, Grace Oberhofer, focuses on non-traditional music theater. So it’s not surprising that she would join with playwright Helen Banner and to create The Byzantine Choral Project (BCP), making theater for women and nonbinary voices. Inspired by the Byzantine Empresses Irene, Maria and Euphrosyne, the work showcases the radical power of strong, diverse performers singing together, while also exploring the importance of imagery, representation and iconoclasm in classical and contemporary life. BCP’s ICONS/IDOLS: Irene isa twelve-episode musical audio drama.
Oberhofer, a native of Tacoma, Washington, and a graduate of Tufts University, also works as a performer, sound designer, and educator. An alumna of the BMI Workshop, her work has been developed/presented by OPERA America, The Tank, New Georges, Corkscrew Festival, Seattle Rep, and Central Square, among others. Other compositional projects include Hot Cross Buns and A Doll’s House: A New Opera.
Helen Banner (left) and Grace Oberhofer (Photo Credit: John Keon)
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
It’s difficult to say! I think I’ve had a passion for music for a long time, and have had many people warn me that having a career in the arts is a difficult option, so it’s honestly been a process to feel confident in my career choice. If I were to pinpoint one moment, though, I think I would say my high school senior project. I went to Tacoma School of the Arts (TSOTA) in Tacoma, WA, and we were encouraged to develop a final project that we were passionate about. I chose to write an operetta based on the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White, and I was able to present excerpts of it with my high school choir. It was the first time that a work I wrote was presented to an audience, and I remember feeling so satisfied that something I had created was connecting with everyone there. It’s a feeling that I continue to be delighted by whenever an audience gets excited by something I’ve had a hand in creating.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
The most appealing aspect of a career in the performing arts was definitely the boundless nature of making art. Though there are certainly traditional structures and forms of theater/opera/music theater, a piece can truly be anything you want when you sit down to build it. Not only as a composer/writer, but also as a performer, musician, or sound designer, there’s often a really wide breadth to explore and interpret within a project; it offers so many different ways to connect with others.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I have always been immersed in music, as my mom was an active opera singer and voice teacher growing up. I continued to participate in dance lessons, music classes, and theater programs throughout elementary and middle school, and attended TSOTA, where I learned songwriting and audio engineering. I then continued my education at Tufts University, where I was a Music major and Italian Studies minor. Tufts was a great environment for me, as I was able to be heavily involved in theater and opera both through the Drama and Music Departments and via student groups. Since graduating, I’ve been able to continue my education through music theater writing programs like the Broadcast Music, Inc. Lehman Engle Musical Theater Workshop and the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio.
Grace Oberhofer (Photo Credit: by Justin McCallum)
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I am lucky in that, growing up, the large majority of teachers and mentors that I had were very supportive of my pursuits. I grew up in a family and community where creating art and theater was encouraged, and I got to collaborate with a lot of people who were pursuing the arts full-time, or splitting their time between the arts and a different job, so I knew that there were different options for me to pursue my passions. However, I did end up getting a lot of advice as a kid along the lines of “if you can think of anything you can do with your life aside from theater/music/etc., do that instead.” While I agree that a career in the performing arts can be incredibly difficult to navigate, I think I was led to believe that being a composer/performer would make me miserable somehow, and that is so far from the case!
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Though there are times when I have been discouraged, I have never seriously doubted my decision, because I can’t imagine my life without writing music and creating art. I’ll let you know if that ever changes though!
When did your career reach a tipping point?
Oh gosh, I don’t know if I’ve reached it yet. I suppose the first time I felt like I was really getting some momentum in my career as a composer was during the summer of 2019. I was able to present a workshop production of ICONS/IDOLS: outside of Eden (the sequel to our current podcast series, ICONS/IDOLS: Irene) and a festival premiere of A Doll’s House: A New Opera (based on the play by Henrik Ibsen) within the span of just a few weeks. It was an incredible time of collaboration and excitement – I hope to have many more seasons of my life like it.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
The biggest challenge I’ve found as an artist is balancing my life so that I have the space and time I need to not only create, but also preserve time for myself and my own day-to-day needs. I’ve always had an instinct to say yes when artistic opportunities come my way, but in recent years I’ve had to learn that I also need time to recharge. There’s a great comic by The Oatmeal called “Creativity is like Breathing” that really resonates with me; I’m often diving into an intensive writing period that’s all-consuming, only to come up in need of a lot of air afterwards. I’m learning to inhale inspiration and self-care along the way so that I don’t end up exhaling for too long at a time.
A more logistical challenge I’ve had to face during the past 18 months has been our inability as artists to collaborate in the same room! I feel really lucky that we were able to create the podcast of ICONS/IDOLS: Irene by having the performers record entirely remotely, as it was a real balm during a time when many of us were feeling artistically isolated. Everyone was so game to tackle any technological hurdles or bumps, and I’m really proud of what we made.
Empress Irene is offering a scroll, mosaic from Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
The most important skill that I take with me into any creative process is my ability to collaborate, which at the end of the day is really my ability to communicate. Supportive, trusting, open communication is so, so important for any artistic process, and I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for all of the amazing writers, directors, designers, performers, and other artists that I’ve gotten to work with. I’m a really lucky duck.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The proudest I ever feel of my art is when it is clear that what I’ve created really resonates with someone, or with a group of people. I remember once when I sat at the back of a show of mine and, at the final conclusion to the piece, I was able to see the entire audience lean forward in their seats at the same moment. Most stayed that way for the rest of the show–it was truly the best feeling in the world!
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Keep creating and keep sharing your work, because you never know who out there really needs to hear/see/experience what you have to offer. Also, as someone who also works in education, don’t be afraid to wear multiple hats! Engage in whatever excites you and supports you as you continue on your path.
Top Photo Credit: Emily Lambert Photography