Photo Courtesy of Eli Marshall

Marshall on the set of "Mila" with one of the custom-made percussion instruments used in the opera.

February 15, 2018

Opera Featuring Music Composed by Cornell Professor Gains Global Acclaim

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After conquering the theater scene in Hong Kong, the chamber opera Mila, featuring music composed by Prof. Eli Marshall, music, is making its way to other international cities to hopefully continue its trend of selling-out.

Mila, a one-act opera, first opened in January and is now likely to head to the Philippines and New York City. The play is based on a book written by Candace Chong, and the Hong Kong performance was commissioned by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

Despite the show’s modest hour-long length and cast size of fewer than 15 people, the opera features vocal performances in three languages, with performers from the U.S., Hong Kong and the Philippines, according to the Center’s website.

The story follows Mila, a Filipina domestic worker hired by a family in Hong Kong. The show illustrates how migrant workers struggle in leaving their own families to work for unaccepting families abroad.

According to a University press release, Mila has received international praise for tackling the controversial and contemporary global issue faced by domestic and migrant workers.

“Just by putting the Filipina domestic worker of Hong Kong at center stage is apparently revolutionary, although it shouldn’t be,” Marshall said in an interview with The Sun. “I hope that just by doing so, we can begin to see a hint of a better way to go about things.”

According to a University press release, Marshall used his Cornell research on instruments and music technique to build custom acoustic instruments for Mila. He utilized percussion instruments, combined with other objects such as kitchen utensils, and tuned the instruments in an unprecedented manner to achieve a unique range of pitches.

“My own music for the opera, I like to think, uses theory and ideas of experimentation to push the envelope,” Marshall said to The Sun. “I use all sorts of colorful techniques — a quarter tone piano, percussion instruments built from aluminum tubes and wood and bottles. There’s a method to the madness.”

Marshall noted that Cornell’s Department of Music is unique in its “pursuit of music theory not as its own isolated field, but tightly interwoven with musical practice and experience.”

Prof. Maria Theresa Centeno Savella, Asian studies, aided the production with her knowledge of Tagalog, the Philippines’ official language, and of the region and culture.

“There was a lot of translation to contend with, having to work in three languages — Cantonese, English and Tagalog,” Marshall said. “I’d had no background in Tagalog, but fortunately Cornell’s Southeast Asian area studies is probably the best in the country, and Thess Savella generously offered support, later followed up by the soloist Stefanie Quintin, singing Mila, who gave great input as a vocal artist coming from a literary background.”

Marshall has a strong connection to China. In 2003 he was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship to China and he holds a Doctor of Music degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2013, he curated 30 works by emerging Chinese-born composers for a series at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Marshall also wrote the movie soundtrack for “The Golden Era,” which was released in Taiwan in 2015. His score was nominated for Best Original Film Score at that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. Before coming to Cornell, Marshall taught music at the Central Conservatory in Beijing and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

When asked what advice he would give to Cornell students pursuing careers in musical performance and composition, Marshall felt students focus too greatly on “knowing how they can succeed.”

“As artists, their job isn’t to know the ins-and-outs of the business,” Marshall said. “It’s to imagine what could be done, and to then find a way to make it happen.”

“We all start our musical lives as listeners,” he added. “If we can use our studies as an opportunity to reflect on the music we love, no matter the genre, and figure out what it is that makes us have that reaction, then that is a much more powerful creative tool than any advice that can be given.”