Opera Orlando and UCF Professor Stella Sung today were awarded a prestigious grant to the tune of $10,000 as part of Opera America’s national program to promote female composers of the genre.

Nine teams of opera companies and composers around the country shared in Opera America’s $100,000 announcement.

Sung, also director of UCF’s Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology and Entertainment (CREATE), says she is about half finished with her composition, The Secret River, which is an adaption of a children’s story set in Florida by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

“The prestige of the grant is actually more important in many ways than the actual dollar amount. The competition is very tough for this grant, and other recipients are Houston Grand Opera, Philadelphia Opera and others,” Sung says. “So for Opera Orlando and myself, this is very important recognition.”

‘I am so honored to have been commissioned by Opera Orlando to write their first commissioned opera.’ — Stella Sung

The Secret River was published posthumously in 1955 and tells the story of a young Black girl during the Great Depression who goes on a quest to find a mystical river and catch fish for her starving family and community. The themes are common for Rawlings: the magic of childhood and the struggle to survive in a harsh environment.

“This story is about family, community, childhood innocence, the power of imagination, determination, closeness to nature and love,” Sung says about the subject of her third opera. “I believe that the story also communicates the power of selflessness, the ability to overcome obstacles whether in one’s mind or in reality, and the power of listening to one’s own spirit and heart.”

Sung says opera is the quintessential art form for a composer because it is such a time-consuming collaboration with music, orchestration, singers, musicians, actors, directors, stage and set design, costumes, and other components. She plans to involve a chamber ensemble of 11 to 13 pieces.

She is looking forward to working with Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell from New York, Orlando Opera executive director Gabriel Preisser, artistic director Grant Preisser, stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling, costume designer Jessica Jahn, and puppetry designer Tracey Conner from MicheLee Puppets.

“My work in documentary and animated films here at UCF has also helped me to develop my storytelling skills through musical means,” she says. “I am trying to create the sense of wonder in the child/young adult who is innocent yet believes in something greater than herself, the mystery of the ‘wise woman of the woods,’ the improvisational characteristics of the animals of the forest, the flowing sounds of the river. Balancing the use of traditional instruments with perhaps non-traditional pairings within the ensemble, I will be creating the musical atmosphere as the story unfolds.”

The grant is supported through the Virginia Toulmin Foundation, and if all goes as planned, Opera Orlando has scheduled performances Dec. 17 and 19, 2021, in Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

“To have an opera company willing to produce a new opera is already something of a risk with no guarantees,” Sung says. “I am so honored to have been commissioned by Opera Orlando to write their first commissioned opera.”

Sung has a Bachelor of Music (piano performance) from the University of Michigan, Master of Fine Arts from the University of Florida (composition) and a Doctor of Musical Arts (piano performance) from the University of Texas at Austin. She started working at UCF in 1985 as a visiting instructor. She is a Pegasus Professor, the highest honor awarded to distinguished faculty members at UCF, and holds an endowed University Trustees Chair professorship in the College of Arts and Humanities.