Auburn native Beth Morrison has won the prestigious “artist of the year” award from Musical America. Morrison’s opera and music theatre production company has been credited with updating opera for contemporary audiences. James Matthew Daniel

AUBURN — Beth Morrison, who began her theatre career at Auburn’s Community Little Theatre, is joining elite company.

Morrison, whose opera and music theatre production company, Beth Morrison Projects, is recognized for driving landmark changes in the industry, will receive the “Artist of the Year: Agent of Change” award from Musical America during a virtual ceremony Dec. 6.

The award has also been given to legends such as composer Leonard Bernstein and opera singer Jessye Norman. Morrison will be the first producer to be given the nod.

When announcing the award, Morrison said she started her company in order to change the field of opera “by carving out a space for new voices, new works, and new ways of reimagining what opera could look and sound like.”

Speaking to the Sun Journal this week from Boston, she said she wanted to use the high emotions and complicated subject matter of opera to “tell the stories of our time.” As good as the classic operas are, she said, those were the stories of their time.

Her company is now seen as a “change-maker in the industry,” due to its focus on supporting new original work and young composers.

“(Beth Morrison Projects) is and always has been about producing the works of living composers and taking risks to tell the stories of our time,” she said in the award announcement.

According to Musical America, the country’s oldest magazine on classical music, the Artist of the Year: Agent of Change is chosen “for their commitment to redefining their art forms, and specifically for their high profile contributions to the performing arts in this most challenging year of COVID-19.”

Musical America said Morrison has built a versatile opera and music theater production company “that has helped nurture dozens of noteworthy shows and up-and-coming composers,” including Pulitzer Prize winners Du Yun and Ellen Reid.

“Women and artists of color have featured prominently since Beth Morrison Projects started in 2006,” the statement said.

Also awarded this year will be opera singers Julia Bullock and Jamie Barton.

Morrison has been involved in theatre productions since she was 6, when her family joined Community Little Theatre in Auburn. Along with her brother and parents, (her father, Chip Morrison, is a former Auburn city manager) she would participate  in several shows per year.

While in high school, she started gaining more hands-on experience with productions, putting on a major musical every January with other students returning from college for the holidays. She credits her former vocal teacher and choral director at Edward Little High School with pushing her to pursue bigger goals.

That’s why, at 17, she entered Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute. From there, she earned a master’s degree in vocal pedagogy at Arizona State University, and then returned to the Tanglewood Institute as a teacher, eventually becoming its director in 1999.

She said when she first went to Tanglewood after high school, she imagined pursuing a Broadway career, but that Tanglewood “opened my eyes to classical music, and I just kind of fell in love with that.”

After leaving her role as director in the early 2000s, Morrison pursued training in staging and production at the Yale University School of Drama, and began building her business plan for what would become Beth Morrison Projects.

Morrison also established the Prototype festival, an annual winter festival in New York that showcases new opera and music theater work from around the world. Their ninth season will take place this January, but is planned to be mostly virtual due to the pandemic.

Like most everyone else these days, Morrison had to adapt to the COVID-19 era. She moved to Boston, away from her company’s Brooklyn headquarters, to be with her partner. But she also found ways for the company to remain relevant and stay creative.

The company began streaming opera shows from its archives, and more recently, began a series of intimate online performances called “Speakeasies,” streamed over Zoom. They also shot a short film directed by Auburn native Kevin Newbury and a feature-length film of an opera the company commissioned.

“So we’re trying to learn how to be film producers, and TV producers on top of it all, and it’s challenging,” she said.

When the pandemic began, a third of her company’s income was suddenly gone due to the cancellation of 10 tours. Beth Morrison Projects produces shows ready for tour, which are then staged by partnering institutions. The company has nine full-time staff, but production personnel are hired for each show.

Morrison said a new venture, called the producer’s academy, hopes to foster the next generation of arts administrators and producers. Perhaps we’ll see another from Auburn.

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