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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Dayton Opera Hosts the World Premiere of “Finding Wright”

Dayton Opera
Dayton Opera

The opera was inspired by the life of Katharine Wright, the unsung heroine of Dayton's famous flying family...

This weekend, the Dayton Opera is hosting the World Premiere of Finding Wright, which was commissioned to celebrate the local opera’s 60th anniversary.

It tells the story of a young woman who is grieving her husband’s death when she learns of Katharine Wright, the sister of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who played a major role in her family’s invention and promotion of human flight

“What’s interesting about this show and about Katharine Wright is really that she's such a representative of the challenges that so many women face, both in their careers and their personal life."

The idea for this opera came about when two friends were walking through a graveyard.

Kathleen Clawson, the Dayton Opera’s Artistic Director, took librettist Andrea Fellows Fineberg sightseeing back in 2014.

“We went to the grave of the Wright brothers,” she says. “We saw Orville and Wilbur, and in between them was Katharine Wright Haskell. And we looked at each other and said, “Who's that?” And we went to our friend Google and looked it up and started reading her story, and we turned to each other and just said, That's an amazing story. That's operatic!”

A similar scene plays out in the opera they wrote. On stage, a young widow named Charlie stumbles across those same tombstones at her husband’s funeral.

Clawson and Fellows Fineberg knew they wanted to create an opera about Katharine Wright, but they also knew they didn’t want it to be a biopic. Fellows Fineburg says she wrote Charlie as a contemporary character with contemporary problems—and one who can find solace in researching a woman like Katharine Wright.
Fellows Fineburg was interested in the “idea of becoming really enamored with someone when you've kind of lost your way, and they become your compass and guide you back to your wholeness and your truth. I call it going down the rabbit hole, becoming so immersed in that other life while trying to find their way back into their own life.”

And Katharine Wright is a person worthy of research. When she was 15, her mother died, and Katharine took care of her brothers and her father. She also went to college and became a school teacher.

Then, when her brothers achieved flight, she became a central part of their business. As Kathleen Clawson points out, the Wright sister was the face of human flight in Europe.

Dayton Opera
Dayton Opera

“When they went to Europe, she went with them and she even learned French. She was vivacious and intelligent. And the French loved her so much that when the brothers were awarded the Legion of Honor, she was awarded it as well,” Clawson says.

There’s a love story and tragedy, too. Wright reconnected and fell in love with an old friend, and they married. But Orville Wright, who had become dependent on Katharine over the decades, shunned her and they didn’t speak for two years after her marriage—not until she was dying of pneumonia and he was called to her bedside.

The Dayton Opera turned to Blythe Gaissert for the role of Katharine Wright.

Gaissert says, “What’s interesting about this show and about Katharine Wright is really that she's such a representative of the challenges that so many women face, both in their careers and their personal life."

The other lead character—Charlie, the young widow struggling with grief—is played by Amanda Lynn Bottoms. She says getting to play a new, fictional role in a world premier is a creative gold mine

“It's great because you can't follow in anyone else's footsteps, nor should you. You should always try and put your own stamp. But it's just like this great ooey-gooey feeling to say you were the first to do it and to have creative license to not feel hindered by any expectations,” she says. “And to have a female led team has been amazing and just so freeing. Very, very freeing.”

Bottoms says that’s the type of freedom it takes to make a character like Charlie work, and she says Charlie’s grief is something the audience will be able relate to, especially as Dayton approaches the second year of the pandemic.

“Whether it be the loss of a person or the loss of work or just the loss of hope, we've all lost something,” she says. “And, bridging that between us and the audience has been a huge part of my prep, trying to uplift everyone and let no one leave the theater feeling alone.”

Finding Wright takes the stage this Friday night, and there’s a second performance on Sunday afternoon.

Culture Couch is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO – which also collaborated on a podcast about the life of Katharine Wright. It’s called In Her Own Wright and is available now wherever you listen to podcasts.