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Houston's Divergence Vocal Theater launches the Selkie Project in Austin

Selkie-inspired Misha Penton, mezzo soprano and Artistic Director of Divergence Vocal Theater
Selkie-inspired Misha Penton, mezzo soprano and Artistic Director of Divergence Vocal Theater
Photo by Dave Nickerson

Divergence Vocal Theater, the Houston-based opera and interdisciplinary performance arts company, is debuting its latest artistic incarnation in Austin. The fruit of a creative collaboration between visual and performing artists, the Selkie Project: gestation includes a multi-media exhibition running from January 23 through February 6 at the Creative Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. A live performance takes place at 7 p.m. on January 23.

The inspiration behind the Selkie Project comes from a staple of Celtic mythology: half-human, half-seal creatures called selkies. Many legends highlight the seductive quality of the male and female selkie. Emerging from the water, it sheds its seal skin and captures the love of a human. Yearning to return to the sea, the selkie eventually reclaims its pelt, transforms back into a seal, leaving the human lover distraught and gazing at the rough waters.

Legends of the selkie are most often associated with Ireland, in part thanks to art house films like The Secret of Roan Inish. Intrinsic in these stories are ideas of longing, devotion, emotional distance and abandonment – just some of the themes which Divergence Vocal Theater is known to portray in its productions.

The collaboration fueling the Selkie Project centers on Misha Penton, Divergence’s Artistic Director, and Megan M. Reilly, an Austin theatrical designer and visual artist whose primary medium is light. These two creative forces worked together last October for a Divergence production, during which the seeds of this project were born.

Around them Penton and Reilly have gathered a unique group of visual and performing artists, including Houston composer Elliot Cooper Cole and a powerhouse trio from Austin: composer James D. Norman; pianist, vocal coach and opera specialist Dr. Maimy Fong; choreographer, dancer and dance educator Caroline Sutton Clark.

Selkie Project: gestation appears as part of Ideas of Mountains, a series of exhibitions showcasing experimental works at the Creative Research Laboratory (CRL), part of the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin. Each of the eleven site-specific projects focuses on using the CRL in innovative ways using various forms of media. Divergence Vocal Theater’s contribution makes full use of the artistic space, with Penton and Reilly fusing text, painting, fabric, light, film and electronic sound, drawing inspiration from the emotionally-resonant selkie myths.

On opening night the installation itself becomes the venue for a live performance. Of this innovative combination of exhibition and performance piece, Penton remarks, “The entry point into the performance work is actually in the design – the site specificity of the installation. It becomes this sort of ‘opera terrarium’ phenomena.” Mezzo soprano Penton and painist Fong perform the music, composed by Norman and Cole, in addition to pieces by Benjamin Britten and Charles Gounod. Sutton Clark provides the choreography and Butoh dance, while actors Steffanie Ngo-Hatchie and Chase Crossno round out the ensemble.

Houstonians who can’t make the drive to Austin for the premier should check the Divergence website, as an additional performance may take place during the installation’s two-week run. Penton hints that the Austin premier is 'phase one' and discussions are already underway regarding successive Selkie Project works to take place in Houston, possibly in the near future.

Selkie Project: gestation
Performance: 7 p.m. January 23, 2010
Exhibit: January 23 through February 6, 2010
at Creative Research Laboratory, Austin
Admission free


  • Angela 5 years ago

    What a fascinating concept. Thanks for sharing the information for those of us with strong Austin connections - sounds like a real treat!

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