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Grand Forks native wins opera competition in Houston

"Voir Dire," a chamber opera in two acts with music by Matthew Peterson and libretto by Peterson and Jason Zencka, has won the 2011 Opera Vista chamber opera competition in Houston.

That means the work by Peterson, a Grand Forks native living and working in Sweden, will be premiered by Opera Vista in March 2012.

Opera Vista, whose motto is "It's not your granny's opera," just finished its fourth annual festival of new operas, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. The competition had an "American Idol" feel. Composers submitted works, which were screened. Six were submitted to a panel of experts, who then chose four finalists.

Short excerpts of the works were presented, after which the judges told the composer what they thought of their work, and composers could respond. The audience then voted for a winner.

Joel Luks (in an account on the website Culturemap Houston) said Opera Vista drew a curious, near-capacity crowd at the Moores School of Music and that work presented there would receive great exposure.

'To speak the truth'

Voir Dire is a phrase used in law from old Anglo-Norman, meaning "to speak the truth." Generally, it refers to the process by which prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds and potential biases before being chosen to sit on a jury. Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka used real courtroom transcripts as the basis for the work, centered around trials Zencka witnessed while working as a crime reporter for the Stevens Point (Wis.) Journal.

About the opera

Luks said the main narrative focused on the case of a 16-year-old who murdered his mother, with vignettes of other trials, including a custody dispute over a parrot, a rape and arrests, with the orchestra conductor playing the role of judge. At the end, all the ancillary characters become the jury for the opera's primary storyline.

"A Boston Legal opera, Peterson's work had it all," Luks said, "a creative and intriguing foundation, engaging emotional content, familiar tonal language yet clearly embedded in modernism and an innovative approach while displaying an open disposition to work with constructive criticism from a stage director. His work, after all, is demanding."

Peterson, 26, graduated from Central High School in 2002. He then earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition from St. Olaf (Minn.) College and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. A 2008-'09 Swedish Fulbright Scholar, he now lives in Sweden. In November 2009, he was in Grand Forks to work with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra and other musicians and vocalists, who performed scenes from "Voir Dire."

In May, Peterson was among 11 young classical composers who were named winners in the 58th annual BMI Student Composer Awards that recognize superior creative talent and give educational scholarships.