FDU alumna directs a jazz opera about famed 1920s French muse

Jarrar and Goodwin
Felix Jarrar and FDU alumna Brittany Goodwin, BA’13, co-wrote ‘Tabula Rasa,’ a new jazz opera premiering in New York City this spring. (Photos courtesy of Goodwin)
By Sarah Cole

February 12, 2018 — Freelance theater director Brittany Goodwin, BA’13 (Flor), co-wrote and directs “Tabula Rasa,” a jazz opera, which will kick off New York Opera Fest this May in Manhattan, N.Y. Set in the 1920s, the opera centers on the life of French memoirist and muse Alice Prin — better known as Kiki de Montparnasse — and her relationship with artist Man Ray.

“It’s different than other operas because there is a lot of exposition and character development. I am staging it just as I would a drama,” says Goodwin, who has a degree in theater arts from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Written with composer Felix Jarrar, “Tabula Rasa” mirrors 1920s jazz music while maintaining the vocal elements of opera.

After Goodwin and Jarrar finished collaborating on “Songs of the Soul Beams,” a song cycle that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the writing pair wanted to challenge themselves with a full-length opera. Goodwin wrote the script and the lyrics, or libretto, of “Tabula Rasa.” She recorded herself reading her poetry, and sent it to Jarrar, who then set her words to music.

While researching Kiki’s life in Paris, France, Goodwin visited many places where Kiki danced, dined and loved, including the apartment where she and Man Ray lived together and “Le Jockey,” where Kiki performed. Upon returning from Europe, Goodwin made plans to read Kiki’s memoirs, kept in the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library. The security there is tight. “It was everything short of a retina scan that I had to do just to sign up to see this book,” she says. Kiki’s memoirs are written in French, so Goodwin used her computer to translate. “You feel like a scholar when you do an archeological dig into someone’s memories and life.”

Writing a biographical opera can present difficulties, Goodwin continues. After putting together the story, she conducted intense editing sessions in writing circles, which included the actors playing Man Ray and Kiki. “The biggest obstacle in the writing is making sure it is both accurate and full of emotion,” she says. “I integrated those elements into a plot about the demise of a relationship and the beautiful art that came from it.” They had several private read throughs with a dramaturg and other playwrights to discuss story clarity. They will hold a public readthrough, “Crying Colours: The Tabula Rasa Workshop,” of the entire work this April at the Arete venue in Brooklyn, N.Y.

To empower Kiki and tell her story, Goodwin introduces elements of feminism to a traditional musical form that has historically portrayed women in subservient roles.

Goodwin writing in Paris
Goodwin traveled to Paris seeking inspiration. Here, she writes at a café in Montparnasse.
Part of the inspiration for the opera came from Goodwin’s own experience. “I was in a relationship for five years. He moved out overnight and I came home to an empty house,” she says. In the living room, where there had once been a collection of his oil pastels, there were now only portraits of Goodwin.

“One caught my eye, one that I had always hated. It was in blue and green scale,” Goodwin says. This inspired her to write the beginning to “Blue,” the first song in the opera. “The repeated lyrics are ‘How could you ever love the hand that brushed you blue?’”

It was during this creative period that Goodwin drew the parallel between her story and this French muse and artist. “I Googled ‘muses who left their artists,’ and I found Kiki and Man Ray,” she says. She realized she could relate to Kiki and sought to explore those emotions in the opera.

Tabula rasa translates from Latin to ‘erased slate’ and that’s what muses were,” Goodwin says. “They became whatever artists wanted them to be, at the sacrifice of their own stories.”