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An Opera For All Ages
(For Small Ensemble and Special Guest Artist)
Librettist, Leslie Dunton-Downer


Commissioned by a consortium of opera companies led by Santa Fe Opera in association with San Francisco Opera that includes: Lyric Opera Of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Sarasota Opera, and Seattle Opera

The Melville Hankins Family Foundation and The Andrew Mellon Foundation and an Innovation Grant from OPERA America made this project possible with generous funding.

World premiere performance to be given by Santa Fe Opera on October 26, 2019 in the Lensic Performing Arts Center directed by John de los Santos, conducted by Carmen Flórez-Mansi who also serves as Youth Chorus Director.

Libretto by Leslie Dunton-Downer

Duration: ca. 83 minutes (performed without intermission.)

40 short recordings of Composer’s verbal annotations to each section of the score (including singing, and description of notations, form, etc.) can be requested from

Augusta Read Thomas and Nicole Paris. Photo by Rob Hart
Rooftop Beekeeper by Elizabeth Downer Riker. This painting inspired the libretto.


But Sweet Potato can’t resist, so kicks the sun clear out of the sky! Right as all are calling the sun home, Sweet Potato causes another fiasco! Now there is little hope of the sun’s return. Meanwhile a very special person is keenly following every detail, and just may step in to help. 

Sweet Potato lives in a rooftop garden with best friend 89, a hummingbird who follows rules, respects boundaries, and tries against crushing odds to keep Sweet Potato in line. They and others – Baby Honeybees, Pigeons, and Squirrel – are cared for by Grandfather Beekeeper and Grandmother Seed-Keeper. Everyone adores Sweet Potato, who enlivens their garden with kaleidoscope curiosity and energy. But this time Tater has gone too far. 

Grandfather orders 89 to accompany Sweet Potato to the summit of City Park Mountain, where he hopes the rebel grandchild will gain some wisdom. On their path into unfamiliar territory, the friends encounter fascinating critters and receive mysterious messages. They overcome obstacles with comic flair, cleverness, and courage as a fresh quest sends them beyond the mountaintop to search for the secret to the sun’s return. Along the way, Sweet Potato and 89 join forces with the special guest whose dazzling talents help them save the day. 

Back in the garden, sad news awaits. But in the end there is also much to celebrate. Sunlight, birdsongs, and honeybee buzzes return at last to the rooftop. Yet with a surprising twist thanks to you know who.

Conductor Carolyn Kuan and director John de los Santos team up for this exuberant world premiere featuring renowned beatboxer Nicole Paris in her opera debut as Special Guest Artist.

Join Sweet Potato, 89, and Nicole on their rollicking and touching journey. Their world will be transformed by their adventures. And so will yours. 

Nicole Paris. Photo by Elizabeth Wiseman
CAPTURED IMPROVISATION by Augusta read thomas

Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like all my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled – on the spot - as if we listeners are overhearing (capturing) an un-notated, spontaneously embodied improvisation.

I want all of my works to be enacted and performed with spontaneity, alertness, naturalness and musicality. This very invitation is clearly caressed on every page of the score of SPKTS.

SPKTS is, at its core, an opera with the inner life of a captured improvisation.  I am calling for ALL artists react to one another in real time, spontaneously - and not in any stylized manner - making every performance of SPKTS full of life and inner-flow — and each performance, even by the same artists, a little different from any other performance of it.

All artists remain nimble and flexible.
— Keeps it alive from the inside.
— Keeps it fresh every show.

SPKTS is, in many ways, akin to a dance work.  It is not stiff, affected, pompous or a “park and bark” opera!

Rakes and Pigeons by Elizabeth Downer Riker. This painting inspired the libretto.

This piece was created for new voices to be heard in American opera. In that spirit, it offers an unconventional role for a guest artist to improvise rather freely, to expand our ideas about what an opera is and how it can sound. Also unusual about this opera is that its title character, Sweet Potato, is a trickster, an archaic figure found in nearly all cultures through the ages, and identified by Carl Jung as a universal human archetype.

Unlike protagonists whose actions are clearly laudable, tricksters are more akin to Bart Simpson: captivating but quite naughty, and at first glance even destructive. Drawing on a curious brand of creativity to disrupt the sacred order, the trickster can push a major reset button to clear the way for a society’s fresh start.

I think of Sweet Potato as a ‘right brain’ character, and of Sweet Potato’s friend, the rule-abiding and more rational 89, as a ‘left brain’ type. Their relationship is not always smooth, but together the friends form a powerful force that brings new possibilities into their world.


"Language remains one of the great mysteries of human life. As a librettist, I am always fascinated by the composer’s unique way of hearing language, and of shaping its inherent musicality into a dramatic universe made of sounds. As each performing artist in turn brings this world to life with astounding particularity, I am amazed to discover the libretto heard anew, given full expression. How all creative layers of an opera may be experienced by audience members is yet another mystery that deeply occupies my mind when I am writing a libretto." — Leslie Dunton-Downer

Subjects Addressed in the Opera

Respect for and love of nature; humans, flora, and fauna as interlinked; appreciating boundaries between self and others; challenges and joys of friendship and teamwork; honoring individual ways of being and learning; embracing community and communal values; the wisdom of the older generations; empathy and unconditional love; personal transformation and insight; nature in urban settings; opera embracing diverse musical traditions, artists, and audience members.


An opera house or any theater stage; a rooftop garden; streets; a mountaintop; a playground; and a glass jar factory cellar in a city where all creatures (humans, animals, birds, insects) live as equals and are able to speak and sing.


Two roles are gender-marked in this work: GRANDMOTHER and GRANDFATHER. All other roles are expressly written as unmarked by gender.


In the opera’s world, some characters are human, such as Sweet Potato, and some are not, such as 89, a hummingbird. All characters treat one another as equal creatures.


"Composing for voice is a huge passion and as a result the largest part of my catalogue is music for voice(s). The human voice — the most subtle, complex, and fragile yet forceful, flexible, seductive, and persuasive carrier of musical ideas and meanings — has always been an inspiration for and influence upon my entire musical thinking. I sing as I compose. When musicians ask me a question, I sing the answer." — Augusta Read Thomas

Nicole Paris and Augusta Read Thomas in Santa Fe in Summer 2017. Photo by T.A. Paris-Cage

Nicole Paris is a world-class talent. I am inspired by her beatboxing and, for the past three years, through a series of detailed workshops, we have been collaborating on an opera that I am composing in which Nicole plays the lead role. Our time together is energized and creative. We laugh a great deal when working together.  Because we trust each other, we are able to explore sound together and work hard to find just the right atmosphere for each scene in the opera.

In the opera, Nicole, the special guest artist, beatboxes and sings. The other vocalists sing and, from time to time, develop a wide variety of vocalizations akin to beatboxing. As such, the opera organically unfolds a sound world where different musical traditions crisscross and are deeply integrated.

I see opera as embracing diverse musical traditions, artists, and audience members.

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"Operatic Beatz, Embrace The Newness. After meeting Augusta Read Thomas, I knew we would awaken the Universe with new music." — Nicole Paris

Brooklyn Grange Navy Yard by Elizabeth Downer Riker. This painting inspired the libretto.
Dramatis Personae and Instrumentation

If needed, the opera can be given by three principal vocalists as detailed above. This work however ideally utilizes four principal vocalists in the following roles: Sweet Potato, 89, Grandfather, Grandmother. Either way, additional required personnel include one actor and a special guest artist. The GUEST ARTIST may be a vocalist (beatboxer, country singer, jazz singer, rapper, scat singer, yodeler, etc.), or any other performer or presenter not traditionally associated with opera (artist, athlete, inventor, scientist, comedian, puppeteer, or any who may demonstrate some aspect of their work to a live audience). Children’s Chorus roles are optional; note that their inclusion does not change the opera’s duration. In the libretto, optional roles appear in brackets; for example: [BABY HONEYBEES]. If no Children’s Chorus is used, a few lines of text will be added to some existing roles covered by the actor.

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Map of Form

Click image to enlarge

sweet-potato MAP OF FORM as drawn by the composer

Click image to enlarge

sweet-potato SKETCH as drawn by the composer

At Santa Fe Opera with Brandon Neal, Andrea Fellows Walters and Ruth Nott
The Lensic Theater
The Lensic Theater

To obtain examination or performance material for this
Augusta Read Thomas work, please contact Nimbus Music Publishing.