Ellen Reid uses ‘p r i s m’ to deal with tough subject

Betsy PickleArts 865, Get Up & Go

For composer Ellen Reid, connecting people through music is a beautiful thing.


The Oak Ridge native grew up playing piano and playing in the high school band and performing in church choir and show choir.

She left her hometown to study at Columbia University in New York, where, she says, life was practically one song blending into another. She went on to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) to earn her master’s degree.

Her composing career has included a little bit of everything, but the peak so far is “p r i s m,” which debuted at LA Opera in November 2018. It won her the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music and is what’s bringing her home this week.

Reid will be the featured guest at the YWCA of Knoxville & the Tennessee Valley’s Talk & Toast, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, at the Grove Theater in Oak Ridge. The event is one of several in the Y’s observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Reid, who divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, was invited because the subject matter of her opera covers sexual and emotional abuse.

Reid will talk about the piece – although not about any possible connection she has with the topic – and will show clips from performances (the music is now streaming on all platforms worldwide). There are two main characters and a character speaking from offstage.

It’s her first opera.

“I had written operatic things but not something at that level,” she says.

Reid, 36, has composed extensively for film and stage – in addition to writing choral and pop works and installations – and storytelling is important to her.

“I’m interested in how music can evoke different feelings and how it can be used to tell stories, and that definitely holds across a lot of different genres.”

The acclaimed composer likes asking hard questions. Her major at Columbia was musicology, “which is kind of sociology of music,” she says. One of her teachers encouraged her to write more music, and she was drawn to research-based work.

It took about four years to complete “p r i s m” – two years working on the story and another two working on the music – in between other projects. Her librettist was Roxie Perkins, and she also worked with performers Anna Schubert and Rebecca Jo Loeb in developing the project.

“We just did it in Brazil, in Sao Paulo, on their big operatic stage, and it worked really well,”’ she says. “People were so into it, we sold out eight shows of over a thousand people.”

Reid, who says she’d love to bring the opera to East Tennessee, says “the cool thing” about the piece is that it appeals to people who like classical opera and those who want a more innovative approach.

“There are a lot of points of entry for the audience.”

Reid, who will have a commissioned work performed in February 2020 by the New York Philharmonic for Project 19 – a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, is excited to talk about “p r i s m” and share its message.

“It’s speaking to people from a wide variety of backgrounds,” she says. “It’s speaking to people who have never experienced anything like that, and it’s speaking to people who have experienced it very closely.

“And I’m so happy that the piece can speak across all these different lines to reach people. The more we understand about what it feels to live something, the more we understand each other.”

Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter best known as the longtime film critic for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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