By Karen Rile | A few days before starting her doctoral studies at Penn, Melissa Dunphy Gr’14 woke up to discover that she was a celebrity. The torrent of interviews and articles wasn’t confined to the arts and culture sections, either. Instead, the 29-year-old composer’s name was popping up on everything from the Huffington Post to Fox News. It was all for the Philadelphia premiere of Dunphy’s latest composition, The Gonzales Cantata, a 40-minute work for chorus, harpsichord, and chamber orchestra, based on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Unless you were following the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, the Rachel Maddow Show, or the multitude of other media outlets that covered The Gonzales Cantata last September, you probably had to re-read that last sentence. Written in what Dunphy describes as a “pop neo-Baroque” style, the work features a libretto lifted entirely from transcripts of the 2007 hearings, in which fellow Republicans famously browbeat the former attorney general while he appeared unable to remember key details concerning his dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. In a twist, Dunphy’s score reverses all genders, so that the male senators and Gonzales himself are sung by sopranos. Orrin Hatch, whose role Dunphy describes as “comforting” towards the beset Gonzales, is an alto. Diane Feinstein, the only female senator present at the hearings, is sung by a tenor.
Dunphy staged her production, part of the 2009 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, inside the Capitol-like sanctuary of the Rotunda, a former Christian Science church near 40th and Walnut streets that is currently owned and rented out by Penn. Female singers were costumed in tiaras, and red or blue gowns, depending on party affiliation, with white sashes bearing the names of the male senators they represented. Cheeky? Yes, but Dunphy, who was obsessed with PDQ Bach as a young teen, uses absurdity to bring home her point about gender inequality in U.S. government, and to make a sly reference to the 18th-century practice of casting male castrati in female roles. Dunphy’s clever use of Baroque style, complete with repetitive arias, satirizes the mannered and sometimes-comical behavior in Senate hearings. The comic high point is an aria in which the Gonzales character sings the phrase I don’t recall 72 times—just as he did in the actual hearings while being grilled by then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter C’51 of Pennsylvania.
Dunphy grew up in Brisbane, Australia, where she studied theater and music at an elite private school, later earning diplomas in speech and drama from Trinity College, London. She entered medical school at 16, but dropped out a few months later to pursue a medley of artistic and practical pursuits, at which she has enjoyed a startling level of success. In addition to composing, she has maintained several parallel careers, including IT, Web design, modeling, and professional acting. (A recent Philadelphia Inquirer review of her performance as Ophelia with the Lantern Theater Company labeled her “unquestionably the city’s leading Shakespeare ingénue.”) A gifted musician, Dunphy plays keyboards, drum kit, violin, viola, and cello, and has frequently conducted her own work.
In 2003 she emigrated to the U.S. to marry Matt Dunphy, a Web designer from central Pennsylvania, whom she met over a fan site he manages for the rock band Nine Inch Nails. (Melissa’s variegated history also includes an era of blue hair and facial piercings as well as a stint in an electro-punk band called Dead Inside the Chrysalis.) She landed first in the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, where she found work at the local NPR/PBS affiliate. Although she had never been particularly interested in politics in the past, her curiosity was piqued as she observed Pennsylvania politicians (including Senator Specter, whose nose she powdered before he went on camera) parade through the station. Soon she was a political junkie, with her ear glued to radio broadcasts—such as the Gonzales hearings, whose comic and operatic potential she immediately recognized. Dunphy, a self-described liberal who became a U.S. citizen just in time to vote in last November’s presidential election, points out that while The Gonzales Cantata may be politically charged, it is essentially a nonpartisan piece. The beleaguered attorney general is treated not as a villain but as a tragic figure—occasionally sympathetic, yet ultimately irredeemable.
Dunphy wrote the cantata as a senior project for her undergraduate degree in music composition at West Chester University last spring, and decided to enter it in the Fringe Festival at the 11th hour. She funded the production out of pocket, and spent the summer of 2009 navigating the labyrinth of regulations at Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections in order to obtain a temporary certificate of occupancy for the Rotunda.
In addition to writing, directing, and producing the cantata, Dunphy promoted it doggedly in every traditional and new media outlet that she could think of, hoping to drum up enough revenue from ticket sales to recover her substantial investment—and to pay her musicians, who were working on a profit-share basis. To attract reporters, Dunphy and her husband designed a comprehensive website, www.gonzalescantata.com, which parodied the hallmark style of The Drudge Report.
But a static Web presence would not have been enough to generate the publicity Dunphy needed to make the cantata performances a success. For weeks before the Fringe Festival, Matt hunted down Internet articles and essays about Gonzales, diligently posting notifications about the upcoming performances and pointing to the cantata’s website in every comments section. His work paid off in spades when a Wall Street Journal reporter picked up the story and published an interview with Dunphy a few days before the first performance. What followed was a cascade of articles, interviews, and television reports, generating enough hype that Dunphy was able to recoup her own expenses and cut three-figure checks for each of the performers. As a blogger in Sequenza 21, the contemporary classical-music website, points out, “Melissa is creating a PR model for any composer to learn from … this 29-year-old graduate student has received more press about her cantata than most major composers do when they win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Three days later, the production was over. No time to kick back and relish her triumph, because it was time to buckle down for the start of her first semester working towards a PhD in music composition. During a recent interview on Penn’s campus, squeezed in between classes and a comprehensive listening exam, Dunphy spoke of her plan to become a freelance composer, exploring all kinds of traditional and new media as outlets for her music. She is also interested in writing film scores and even video-game scores.
“Last year I dragged Matt to see Dr. Atomic at the Met—his first opera—and afterwards he said it was like the History Channel with music,” says Dunphy. “I realized that new operas aren’t accessible to new listeners. But there’s no reason for that. If you ask the average person whether they enjoy hearing Ligeti choral music, they’ll give you a funny look. But then they’ll tell you they love the music in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is possible to create settings that will appeal to modern audiences.”
In keeping with her vision, Dunphy’s next big project will be a “space opera”—a science-fiction opera set in outer space, and she has been meeting with Philadelphia-area sci-fi writers to start working out a plot.
“I always approach music by writing my passions,” she says, her eyes lighting up with excitement. “When I feel really passionate is when I do my best work.”
Karen Rile C’80 teaches writing at Penn.