Voir Dire
9 years in the making...


Jason Zencka (librettist) and I are classmates at St Olaf College in Minnesota; during our senior year we write a chamber opera, The Binding of Isaac together. It’s produced by the opera program at the school; in the main roles were two future professional singers - soprano Laura Wilde (St Louis, Chicago Lyric) and Eric Neuville (Seattle Opera). The piece is awarded a BMI student composer award and National Opera Association chamber opera awards runner-up. It also gets me into IU for my masters degree.


After studying with Sven-David Sandström and Per Mårtensson at IU, I’m awarded the Fulbright Grant to Sweden, my project was to write a chamber opera while in residence at Gotland Composer School. Jason will write the libretto; our initial idea is an opera about the right-wing extremist Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer who murdered two US Marshals in the early 80s. At this time Jason is crime reporter for the Stephens’ Point Journal, Stephens Point Wisconsin, where he wins a state journalism award for his series on alcoholism in that county. He reports on the police, courtroom, etc.

Summer 2008:

When I visit Jason to stay and work on the libretto, shortly before my move to Sweden, he has an epiphany. We should write a courtroom opera based on his experiences, and ditch the Kahl concept. I agree. We visit the courtroom together and start talking about different cases and characters.. 

Fall 2008:

I move to Visby Sweden, Jason begins writing Voir Dire in fits and bursts. We still aren’t sure how the piece fits together, but we have several different stories taking form, including the “Jailhouse” aria. 

Spring 2009:

By now, I’ve composed an orchestrated the Jailhouse aria and most of Professor Milton’s scene. Jason is starting to figure out how the piece can fit together, as it follows a strange story of a 16-year-old boy who is accused of matricide. Mattias Svensson, head of Gotland composer school, has set up a collaboration between VOX, a vocal quartet in Gothenburg, and chamber ensemble Norrbotten NEO; they will premiere the piece in spring 2010 in Gothenburg. VOX is a group specializing in early opera and modern, mostly comical works. They are accomplished solo singers but also very good at singing in ensemble. The tenor and baritone are good falsetto singers as well; the baritone a former circus performer. I compose the piece with their unique abilities in mind. In April I orchestrate the Jailhouse aria for ensemble NEO. Sofia Jernberg sings the premiere of “jailhouse” and “pavane for a dead infant” at Ljudvågor (sound waves) festival in May 09, and it’s a huge hit.

July-Dec 09:

Back in North Dakota, I’m splitting my time between working landscaping and tree removal, hunting, and composing. Working mostly in practice rooms at University of North Dakota, I finish the piano vocal score for Voir Dire Jason is now (over)working as investigator for the public defense of Washington DC, so I am forced to finish the libretto (including the final scene) myself. By October I’ve sent VOX the piano vocal score. In January 2010 I move to Essex England, to live with my then girlfriend (Swedish, studying theater). By February I’ve moved to live with friends in Djursholm outside Stockholm, where I finish the first draft of the orchestra score. (I had flown Ryan Air from London to Stockholm to save money: wearing all my clothing, pockets stuffed with computer cords, an over heavy carryon backpack, and holding the handwritten score in my hands). 

Late Feb 2010:

I travel to Gothenburg to rehearse with VOX. It’s quickly apparent that they haven’t practiced the piece, nor have they arranged a rehearsal pianist, so I’m forced to take on that role as best I can. First day we make a run of the piece. The second day we run the first half, and hold a meeting. At the meeting, they suggest an unacceptable cut - the entire “trial” scene between Timothy and Julie Kalcek, and their respective attorneys. In the scene, their testimonies concerning an alleged rape within the marriage are juxtaposed, so as to form a duet. The soprano found the scene strangely unacceptable. Confused, frustrated at their attempts to cut the scene, I think we arrive at a compromise. But the next week, the ensemble backs out of the production - and they can, because Mattias had not made a contract with them. NEO also backs out, and I’m stranded in Sweden, wondering if I should just cut my losses and retreat to ND. 

Spring-fall 2010:

I take a risk and stay on in Sweden, living in a farmhouse apartment on a lake 60 miles N of Stockholm. I’ve secured a production with ensemble Sonanza and the Royal Opera College, for spring 2011. By summer, a complete revision of the orchestra score is finished. Starting fall I teach one day a week in Visby at the composer school. Between the four teaching days in Visby, as well as money made working landscaping for nearby houses and hunting foxes for the farmer, my existence is pretty spartan. I have netting rights on a bay of the lake, and there are plenty of mushrooms and berries in the woods, so my freezer is full enough. I compose “Hyperborea” for orchestra, a commission from St Olaf Orchestra which later goes on to win the ASCAP NIssim Award and Minnesota Orchestra composers institute, and several solo works. 

Dec 2010:  

The director at Opera College takes a job in Germany and Voir Dire is scrapped.

Spring 2011:

I send Voir Dire out to various opportunities. I’m invited to take part in the Vista competition for chamber opera in Houston, the brainchild of Viswa Subbaraman. Previous winners included works by David T Little and Lembit Beecher, and Voir Dire is awarded top prize - a production in 2012.


I do one year of a DMA fellowship at Indiana University, but in 2012 my ex-wife and I got married in Sweden and moved to her place in Stockholm.

Jan 2012:

Viswa calls me to let me know that the production of Voir Dire has been cancelled, following his acceptance of a job conducting Milwaukee Skylight theater.


With few to no commissions, and trying to establish myself as a composer in Sweden, I work as a music teacher, both elementary and middle school. I compose “And all the trees of the field will clap their hands”, which wins the prestigious Uppsala Composer Competition, and earns me performances with ten orchestras in the nordic countries.

April 2014:  

Still sending out Voir Dire to various opportunities, I’m invited to participate in the 2014 Fort Worth Frontiers festival, where and excerpt of Voir Dire is performed with piano score. My piece is selected by artistic director Darren Woods to be workshopped for possible future production.

August 2014:

With Larry Edelson staging, Darren Woods and Richard Kagey advising, the piano-vocal score of Voir Dire is workshopped by a team of singers and pianist-coaches from Seagal Opera Colony. After performance for a workshop audience, we discuss changes to the libretto and the piece, including adding a bass-baritone role for The Judge (a role that was previously designed to be spoken by the conductor). 

Jan 2015:

Jason and I meet in North Dakota to rewrite the libretto, but we mostly go ice-fishing. 


Jason takes a long time revising the libretto, but by April 2016 the updated piano-vocal score is finished, and by fall the revised full score is delivered to Fort Worth Opera. During 2016 I also compose the opera Lifeboat, libretto by Emily Roller, commissioned by Washington National Opera. My third chamber opera, it is premiered Jan 16, three months BEFORE my second opera :)

April 23 2017: world premiere of Voir Dire, 9 years in the making