Bringing Grit and Guts to Opera

The education and elemental music of Lisa Neher

On an overcast morning last March, Dr. Lisa Neher took to the streets of Tigard to film a short opera she had composed called Momentum. She was playing Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon. To help Neher lip sync to her vocal performance, her fiancée, Mike Newman, ran alongside her holding a Bluetooth speaker.

During the Boston Marathon, Switzer was physically attacked by race director Jock Semple, who screamed, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”

“When I ran my first marathon, I was 19 and there were tons of women around me and it was totally normal,” Neher says. “I really can’t know at all what it was like to be in her situation and be attacked.”

While that’s true, Neher (who is a Portland-based composer and mezzo soprano) has survived trials that would daunt even Ripley, the interstellar warrior who is played by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films and is one of Neher’s heroes.

“There’s a comic book quote from Captain America: ‘When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world, ‘No, you move,’” says Lexie Briggs, who was Neher’s roommate at Lewis & Clark College. “That’s what I think of when I think of Lisa.”

Neher as Prince Orlofsky in 'Die Fledermaus', Martha-Ellen Tye Opera Theatre, Iowa City. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Neher as Prince Orlofsky in ‘Die Fledermaus’, Martha-Ellen Tye Opera Theatre, Iowa City. Photo courtesy of the composer.

It would take more than one article to explain Neher’s life. This is not the definitive story; it is a chronicle of a few crucial pieces that illustrate how she has evolved as an artist and as a human being. 

Put simply, it is the story of how Lisa Neher told the world to move.

Earth (Beginnings)

Neher grew up in Covington, a city south of Seattle. She was homeschooled, but she took public school classes and did theatre as an extracurricular. Her interest in stage performance was ignited by a children’s production of Peter Pan that she saw when she was in junior high.

“I’m still thinking of that play—a play put on by junior high students in the suburbs of the suburbs of Seattle in Covington, Washington, with a quirky drama teacher who made up a silly dance for the alligator to do and that we all laughed at, something that’s not even in the script,” Neher says. “I was changed forever by seeing that play.”

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Seeing Peter Pan inspired Neher to try out for a production of The Wizard of Oz the next year. Despite having no formal vocal training (although she did sing while biking, despite getting strange looks from neighborhood boys), she was cast as Dorothy. Neher jokingly describes her rise as “meteoric.”

Neher was initially leery of opera. “My grandma likes to give me a hard time about how long I poo-pooed opera,” Neher says. “I think [I was influenced by] cartoons that make fun of opera as being boring and long and over the top…the Bugs Bunny joke about opera or the lady-in-horns idea of opera.”

During college, that perception would be shattered.

Fire (Obstacles)

When Lexie Briggs, who remains one of Neher’s closest friends, remembers their time together at Lewis & Clark, she remembers a Lisa Neher who was tenacious and unique.

According to Briggs, Neher “wore handmade jumpers and overalls with skirts and she carried a stuffed animal seal around with her all the time because she really likes stuffed animals, and that’s something that she’s continued to enjoy in her life shame free, which is so wonderful and inspiring. But she was well known at school for being the one who everyone thought was a little bit off center.”  

Yet Neher’s greatest nemesis at Lewis & Clark wasn’t other students—it was her own physical limitations. She suffered from runner’s knee, and also chronic vocal hoarseness, which was the result of excessive practicing.

“You’re really reliant as a young musician on playing or singing things to learn them,” Neher says. “So the idea of score study—being able to silently reinforce what you’re learning—or do other kinds of vocal-energy-saving tricks, those things were very new to me as a 20-year-old and didn’t make sense.”

Neher would eventually graduate summa cum laude from Lewis & Clark with degrees in vocal performance, music composition and theatre, but first she went home to Covington to recover.

“You feel like maybe you’re a bad singer or you did something wrong to yourself,” she says. “So I had to overcome some of those fears and lean on my voice teachers and trust this new way of approaching singing—and this new understanding that I couldn’t practice for six hours a day and I would still find ways to learn my music. And I did.”

Air (Resurgence)/Water (Vision) 

In 1893, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen embarked on an expedition to the North Pole. Using several modes of transportation—his ship, Fram (“Forward”), along with dog sleds and kayaks—he eventually reached 86°14′ N, which was then the highest latitude reached by a human being.

While studying music composition at the University of Kansas (where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 2011, before going on to earn a Doctorate in voice performance and pedagogy at University of Iowa in 2016), Neher picked Nansen’s expedition to be the topic of her thesis, a 22-minute chamber opera called White Horizon. Her resistance to opera was demolished after she started taking classical voice in college and saw a production of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers that she saw with her grandmother.

“I remember when I chose to set White Horizon as my master’s thesis…part of me was annoyed at myself that I didn’t gravitate toward a story that would have two women as the characters, and that I ended up telling this exploration story with a tenor and a baritone,” Neher says. “At the same time, I was really drawn to it and I thought it would be such a great story.”

Neher had grown up immersed in Washington’s natural beauties—including Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens—and by creating elemental music that tapped into the wildness of nature, she was connecting the passions of her adulthood with the wonderment of her childhood.

“I think there’s sort of a mystical aspect to the mountains that got mixed in with hearty doses of Zen Buddhism from family members and some Catholic mysticism from other family members,” she says. “My parents’ and the greater family’s love of nature and sci-fi and fantasy and the mountains and the ocean really laid a huge groundwork for me that I keep coming back to.”

For Neher, the merging music and nature sometimes demands experimentation. “I think sometimes, especially when you’re in school, you can feel this pressure—like you’re supposed to use all these wacky noises to prove that you’re cool,” she says. Yet she became a maestro of beautifully wacky noises, like the glissandi that evokes the light generated by a gulper eel in a clarinet solo that she composed called Gulper.

Even when Neher’s music looks outward, it looks inward. In 2019, she told Third Angle New Music, “The Pacific Northwest is in my bones, in my blood. The gentle rain in the morning, the awe-inspiring mountains peeking through the clouds, the wild and rough Pacific Ocean…they hold a mythic, heroic, deity-like place in my heart.” Fittingly, she released an EP earlier this year titled Of Wind and Waves.

Neher also expresses her inner world in more direct ways. When asked which of her works pushed her to the height of vulnerability, she mentions When I Ask My Daughter Why There Are Stars, I Said, a piece that is set to a poem by Philip Metres and was commissioned by the Resonance Saxophone Orchestra for performance at the 41st U.S. Navy International Saxophone Symposium (it premiered on January 12, 2019). 

“The text was all about, ‘Is there anything left of us after we’re gone?’ and making these metaphors about how the starlight that’s reaching us now from these distant stars, the star itself is dead, but we’re getting this starlight years and years later,” Neher says. “And in that way, some part of the people that we’ve lost will last.”

That message was personal to Neher because the piece premiered one year after her grandfather had died.

“I actually kind of had to delay my emotions a little bit until I got offstage and then break down and cry,” she remembers. “But it was really beautiful because I couldn’t create that on my own. I needed them to play the other 11 parts…and I needed Philip’s poem. On the one hand, you wrote the piece, and on the other hand, it would never be achieved without these people—and without them really buying into the premise.”

Space (Future)

It’s been a busy year for Neher. In collaboration with librettist Kendra Leonard, she created the One Voice Project Virtual Micro Opera Festival (which included Momentum) and Sense of Self (about a triathlete’s battle with breast cancer). She also won the 2021 Iowa Choral Directors Association/Iowa Composers Forum Choral Composition Competition with her piece Three Basho Haiku.

Upcoming Neher projects include Space Station 189, a sci-fi opera composed by JL Marlor that will be released online on August 17 as part of New Music Gathering. Neher is performing in the production and is also serving as its video director (with assistance from Mike Newman) and video editor.

“It’s like seven mini episodes,” Neher says. “I think we’re going to get a greenscreen involved. It’s set on a space station and a mysterious voice is heard by the lone astronaut on the station, and then the plot ensues.”

Sci-fi and singing; running and singing. It’s interesting how Neher’s myriad pursuits keep converging. Maybe it has something to do with the equilibrium that Briggs says Neher has achieved since her days at Lewis & Clark.

“I hear a lot of times from people in the arts and also people who are in grad school and things like that, ‘You can’t spend any time not working,’” Briggs says. “And for Lisa to be so determined and so willing to strap everything on her back and just start marching and also willing to take it off and rest and save space for family and for friends…[that] has been really inspiring to me.”

I know what she means. In the past year, I’ve spoken to Neher three times, and each conversation has left my heart lighter than before. Her buoyant optimism never seems like an attitude; it seems like a part of her apparent belief in the power of speaking to audiences in a way that acknowledges their sorrows, but also alleviates them.

“She wants to write pieces that show the human condition in positive ways, I think,” says Kendra Leonard. “And that doesn’t mean not writing pieces that have trauma or dark moments in them. But she wants to write things where there is optimism.”

Why are there stars? Who knows. But Lisa Neher is one.

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About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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