Ana De Archuleta & Paola Prestini On “Sensorium Ex” And Opera At National Sawdust

By Greg Moomjy

Friday, June 7, 2024

Since its founding in 2015, National Sawdust has become a major part of New York City’s classical music scene. On the eve of its tenth anniversary, directors Ana De Archuleta and Paola Prestini sat down with Greg Moomjy to discuss how this performing arts collective’s mission has evolved in the past decade. They also explored how National Sawdust continues to disrupt paradigms in classical music including with Sensorium Ex, a new opera about disability and diverse ways of communicating. 

Greg Moomjy: Could you tell me how National Sawdust started? 

Paola Prestini: I’ve always been interested in systems. Coming out of a classical music industry system as a composer, and a woman composer at that, there were a lot of things I was interested in trying to adjust and trying to fix. And so, in 2015 when we opened, we opened in a really complicated way because we didn’t have any money and a lot of it was about creating a physical home for people. But as the years went by, we refined our work to be able to create and commission new programs and up to now which is when we’re mentoring, producing, commissioning, and presenting new work. 

So, I would say that it was a natural extension of how I like to organize things, whether it’s organizing my music or it’s organizing something like Sensorium Ex, which is quite complex in terms of it being a system, all the way down to a physical space like our home in Brooklyn. It all comes, I think, from the same place of wanting to have a hand in collaborating and creating systems. 

Greg: How have you seen National Sawdust develop over the past ten years and what are your plans for the future? 

Ana de Archuleta: So, I came into the picture two-and-a-half years ago and I have known of Paola from when she started National Sawdust. I have been in the opera industry now for over twenty years, so I came into knowing National Sawdust as a place of experimentation. When they started, they created a really innovative way of producing opera.

So, that’s how I came into the picture. Once I knew about the venue about three or four years ago, I understood that it was much more than just that. It was a multidisciplinary incubator for artists. So, of course, it’s been very enriching for me to understand all that—that we do everything all at once. But the vision continues to be how to disrupt the system. I think that’s the unifier of National Sawdust, is how we give space in the metaphorical and physical sense to artists to create and develop new things. 

I do think that National Sawdust is the future of a realm of opera. I’m not saying we’re going to eliminate the proscenium and we’re going to eliminate big, grand opera that is presented in many theaters, but I see opera evolving in a more immersive direction. And I think National Sawdust lends itself to do exactly that. 

And, how we move into the next ten years is that we want to sprinkle those experiences into our programming and collaborate. Because we do think that as we are a venue and we partner with producers to make these things happen, we don’t have the bandwidth to create opera from zero. So we have to partner with organizations that are doing it. 

"I do think that National Sawdust is the future of a realm of opera. I’m not saying we’re going to eliminate the proscenium and we’re going to eliminate big, grand opera that is presented in many theaters, but I see opera evolving in a more immersive direction. And I think National Sawdust lends itself to do exactly that."

Greg: What do you think National Sawdust’s role is in terms of educating people and getting new audiences? 

Ana: My thinking is that we use new stories or stories that people relate to in order to bring them into the space. And then we educate them about the story of it. Then we say if you loved The Hours, have you checked out Bohème? I feel like in a sense it will work backwards, not “I will follow up with Bohème and then I hear The Hours,” I think it’s, “I feel a relevance to the story of Malcom X and Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” and then I say, “I like opera because it tells a story, so I’ll check out Bohème.” 

When I got hooked, I saw Bohème and I needed to find every piece of information I knew about Puccini and listen to everything. But not

everybody’s going to fall in love the way we did. They will fall in love with the stories and the voices and then they will want to research. So I think that the next generation, because of where we are societally, needs to find relevancy to the story being told. Then they can go back to examining it, baroque and romanticism, and all those things. 

Greg: Sensorium Ex is about disability and different ways of communicating. Since the opera tells of an underrepresented community, you are creating a codex documenting this work. Could you speak a little more about the process of producing the opera and writing the codex? 

Paola: I’m thinking of it as a step-by-step [description] of how we did it with anecdotes, photos, everything from conception to stage, so that it can be consulted as a potential help. But not exactly a guide, only because everybody’s different and I think the field hopefully will rapidly change and hopefully it’ll be more anecdotal and people will have more experience with this kind of work. It is already in process outlining all the steps that we’ve taken, transparency in budget, because I think often people think that it’s going to be so much more expensive than it is. So really just kind of outlining step-by-step from the human perspective and from the practical perspective how we’ve done it. 

Greg: This is a big year for you. What is it like to commission Sensorium Ex? That’s a huge but necessary undertaking. Have you commissioned anything of this size before? 

Paola: No, this is definitely the biggest. So the idea of commissioning myself is obviously not something that I wanted to do. I would have much preferred an opera company to be like, “this is the best project ever.” And when that didn’t happen, that’s where independent producers really are the answer. So, in that sphere, it was clear that I was very passionate about the project and I would do anything to make it happen. And then, as we began to design out what it would take to bring the opera to stage, it was clear that there were so many different aspects of it that would require funding, and that doing it right was not going to be a simple undertaking.

That’s when both the Ford and the Mellon Foundation came on board, but I’ve never done anything of the size. Although, I would say starting National Sawdust did feel pretty big as well. Maybe there’s something really beautiful and poetic about it being our tenth anniversary and the birth of something so close to my heart.

About Greg Moomjy

In 2012, Greg earned his Bachelor of Arts in Musicology from Fordham University, followed by a Masters of Science in Journalism from The Columbia School of Journalism in 2014. A passionate life-long opera lover, he has spent ten years covering trends in the field for outlets such as Classical Singer and The Indie Opera Podcast. He has also penned articles for New Mobility, New Jersey Monthly and PC Gamer. In 2018 Greg delivered a lecture on Wagner and Antisemitism at University of Pittsburgh’s “Revolution of Tenderness” conference.

As a disabled person with Cerebral Palsy, the intersection of opera and disability is a cornerstone of Greg’s work. This perspective informs his role as co-founder and artistic director of OperaPraktikos. New York City's first disability affirmative Opera Company. He serves as Assistant to the Librettists for Touch, an opera by Carla Lucero and Marianna Mott Newirth on the radical life of Helen Keller, commissioned by Opera Birmingham which premiered in 2024. Additionally, Greg is the Resident Musicologist for Divaria Productions, a New York City-based company dedicated to educating audiences about the historical circumstances surrounding classic works and watershed moments in operatic history.