Will Blair, Brooke Blair and Craig Hendrix created an opera designed to be performed at the historic Kelly Pool in the Fairmount Water Works. Credit: Tirzah Blair
The New Mill House at Fairmount Water Works was originally designed to house the turbines that pumped water from the Schuylkill River to the residents of Philadelphia; it later became the site for Kelly Pool, which served the community until it was hit by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Now, after a brief reopening for this year’s Hidden City festival, the building will become an even more unlikely venue: a makeshift opera house.
“Tributaries: A Modern Cantata” will take over Kelly Pool for one evening, on Saturday at dusk. The multimedia piece, composed by Agave Opera Company founder Craig Hendrix and co-created by Philadelphia composers Will and Brooke Blair, takes the setting as inspiration for a minimalist cantata that explores the impact of water on life in three different centuries.
“We’re using the vastness and drama of the space as part of the production,” says Blair. “The deep end of the pool functions as an orchestra pit, and the ledge of the pool directly behind that seemed the perfect space for a makeshift stage. So rather than change what’s there, we’re working with elements that almost seemed to be designed for something like this.”
Hendrix wrote the minimalist piece for three singers, each of whom represents one tributary of the river in eastern Pennsylvania: the Tulpehocken, the Maiden and the Manatawny. In the cantata’s fourth movement, the three come together in a wordless ensemble piece dedicated to the Schuylkill itself. The music is composed for an eight-piece ensemble, with brass and Brooke Blair’s ambient guitar. “My brother has always taken an ambient, dreamy approach to electric guitar that never really reads as electric guitar,” Will says. “He provides ambient effects that mimic what strings would do. This is definitely not a rock opera.”
It is, instead, a unique sensory experience that not only uses the acoustics of the space to full effect, but its visual elements as well. The production team chose dusk because of the way the setting sun bounces off the Schuylkill and through the pool room’s stained glass windows, creating rippling effects across the ceiling.
“We’ve never done anything like this before, and the space is inspiring,” Blair says. “It’s an opportunity to work with a large ensemble in a historic place. It was an experience that was a little too special and unusual and bizarre to pass up.”