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An Opera For All Ages
(For Small Ensemble and Special Guest Artist)

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 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 and conducted by Carolyn Kuan.

Libretto by Leslie Dunton-Downer

Duration: ca. 83 minutes

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

The Lensic Theater


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. 

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!

Nicole Paris. Photo by Elizabeth Wiseman

A celebrated Artist takes the stage to perform, and is alarmed to find that an opera is about to start in the same space. Before the mix-up can be sorted out, the opera begins. The dismayed Artist watches and reacts as the opera unfolds.

In a rooftop garden inhabited by a family of humans and other creatures, the trouble-making Sweet Potato -- partly out of curiosity, but also just for the fun of it -- kicks the sun out of the galaxy. Sweet Potato’s friend, 89, is devastated, but Sweet Potato relishes seeing a big orb become a tiny blip in the sky.

Grandfather Beekeeper calls for all to pray for the sun’s return. When Squirrel plays the sacred prayer instrument, the Cosmic Cord, Sweet Potato blithely cuts the Cord. Shock is followed by heartbreak when Grandmother Seed-Keeper departs for her secret cellar to prepare for the garden’s survival. Grandfather orders Sweet Potato to the summit of City Park Mountain to gain insight, and asks 89 to go as well. After the friends set out, Grandfather gives Pigeon a message to deliver to Sweet Potato.

Sweet Potato and 89 encounter Friendly Dog, Busy Woodpecker, and Spinning Spider. Each makes extraordinary sounds with a part of its body. Fascinated, Sweet Potato tries to get each wonderful body part, but learns the hard way that 89 is right: some boundaries need to be respected.

Atop City Park Mountain, Sweet Potato falls into a strange sleep. 89 is perplexed to see Sweet Potato making mysterious gestures while unconscious, unaware that Grandfather is showing Sweet Potato these gestures in a dream. Awake, Sweet Potato declares Grandmother the key to the sun’s return and insists she be found quickly. Pigeon lands on the mountaintop with Grandfather’s message, but Sweet Potato has already left with 89.

Urgently searching for Grandmother, Sweet Potato collapses with hunger in City Park Playground. 89 spots a pile of candy; it belongs to two City-Dwellers who give 89 a clue about Grandmother’s cellar. Sweet Potato tricks the City-Dwellers into competing for their own candy, and the Artist soon steps into the action to win the candy for Sweet Potato.

Joined by the Artist, Sweet Potato and 89 set out with fresh energy and find the secret cellar. When Sweet Potato shows Grandmother the dreamed gestures, and passes her test of wisdom, Grandmother knows is it time for her to return home with her grandchildren.

All are reunited in the garden. Grandmother repairs the Cosmic Cord with help from Pigeon’s message so the sun can be called back home. A gesture from the mountaintop dream signals Grandmother to crown Sweet Potato the new Beekeeper, and to welcome the Artist into the rooftop family. Beekeeper Sweet Potato brazenly renames the Cosmic Cord, and launches a surprising new sun prayer for the era to come. While all celebrate into the night, Sweet Potato can’t resist driving 89 crazy just one more time.

Finally, the stage is turned over to the Artist.


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 year, 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

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.