L-R: Tomer Zvulun, The Atlanta Opera Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director with competition winners, composer Dave Ragland and librettist Selda Sahin, and Antinori Foundation Grand Prize sponsor Ron Aninori. (courtesy of the Atlanta Opera)

Ragland and Sahin awarded grand prize for “Steele Roots” in competitive 96-Hour Opera Project

EarRelevant Staff | 20 JUN 2023

In a showcase of competitive performances last week at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, composer Dave Ragland and librettist Selda Sahin won top honors in the second annual 96-Hour Opera Project presented by The Atlanta Opera. Their work, Steele Roots, profiled Carrie Steele Logan, a 19th-century Black woman whose legacy of serving orphans continues with the orphanage she founded, the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home in Atlanta.

The 96-Hour Opera Project is a composition showcase and competition in which five teams of BIPOC composers and librettists, chosen through a competitive application process, had two weeks to write and four days to rehearse and prepare performances of original and compelling 10-minute operas. The competition ran from June 9 – 12, with the adjudicated performances on the final evening.

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For this year’s competition, each team was tasked with spotlighting one of three historical figures, notable people from Atlanta’s history who are all but forgotten. Oakland Cemetery Foundation and Atlanta History Center provided research and story support.

The Atlanta Opera provided the following synopsis of Ragland and Sahin’s Steele Roots:

In 1887 Atlanta, a 50-something Carrie Steele Logan stands in Central Railroad Station holding a baby. Michael, a man in his 20’s in modern-day clothes exits a train, and we transition to present day Oakland Graveyard, and as Michael stands at Carrie’s grave, we realize that he is a descendant of one of the many abandoned babies Carrie saved and cared for long ago. In a nebulous, abstract merging of time and place, we learn that the baby Carrie holds is Michael’s.

As the winning team, Ragland and Sahin will share the $10,000 Antinori Foundation Grand Prize and a commission from The Atlanta Opera to write a chamber opera.

The panel of judges also selected a runner-up: Faces in the Flames, a look at the life of Black photographer Thomas Askew, by the team of composer Nathan Felix and librettist Anita Gonzalez. Faces in the Flames also took home the award of Audience Favorite, selected by popular vote. Felix, Gonzalez, and the other six finalists each received a $1,000 honorarium. The Atlanta Opera provided travel, housing, singers, pianists, and rehearsal space for each of the five competing teams with support from partner host Morehouse College School of Music.

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In an email, Antinori Foundation Grand Prize sponsor Ron Aninori wrote about the cultural importance of supporting the competition:

The Antinori Foundation has made a five-year commitment to sponsor the 96-Hour Project Grand Prize. I love a good contest, especially when it produces new works by underserved artists [and brings them] into the world of the performing arts in Atlanta. Look at what Robert Spano did with his Atlanta School of Composers and how Rapido’s National Winner has promoted the outstanding careers of Mark Buller and Brian Nabors. When Tomer called and described the 96-Hour project, we knew immediately it fit right in with our mission. And he’s taken the concept embodied in these contests to produce new works to a higher level.
The overwhelming power of art feeds my soul, energizes my mind, and challenges these young artists to use their creative talents to develop a sense of identity. Art is emblazoned in my culture, our history, our society, and in our religion. I feel blessed that we can support these functions and, in so doing, feel like we can truly make a difference. That’s an opportunity not to be missed. It just feels good!

In addition to support for the Grand Prize from the Antinori Foundation, the 96-Hour Opera Project was sponsored by the UPS Foundation with support from The Rich Foundation. Additional support in part came from the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and the Georgia Council for the Arts through the appropriations of the Georgia General Assembly as well as from GCA’s partner agency, the National Endowment for the Arts.


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