In many ways, John D’earth, a lecturer in the University of Virginia’s McIntire Department of Music, has been writing this opera his whole life. He wrote the first song in his mid-20s and lived out the story – which is partly autobiographical – even before that.

D’earth, who directs the jazz performance program, saw that vision come to life as his opera, “Sacred Profanity,” debuted Jan. 11 at the Live Arts community theater in Charlottesville after a month of intensive workshop rehearsals. The story follows the life of a middle-aged man as he raises his 12-year-old son in a tenement above a jazz bar.

The plot is loosely based on D’earth’s relationship with his father, a World War II veteran who, despite struggling with alcoholism, possessed an artistic genius that sparked his son’s lifelong love of music. 

“I have wanted to write an opera since I was a teenager, and I have had this particular opera in mind for many years,” D’earth said. “It came together for this workshop in the most amazing way.”

For a month prior to the premiere, D’earth and his cast developed the opera through Live Arts’ “New Works on Fire” program, which launches new pieces through an intensive workshop process, culminating in a public performance. D’earth’s longtime friend, John Edwin Mason, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History who specializes in the history of photography, documented the process from rehearsal to performance.

D’earth, pictured here leading a rehearsal, said that the opera reflects his lifelong love of jazz. The title, “Sacred Profanity,” refers to the way jazz musicians use profanity in a positive way, to describe the music and each other. “What is bad becomes good, and that is a lot of what jazz is all about. It is music that evolved out of centuries of slavery,” D’earth said. “Much of the opera is about how jazz makes me feel. It has to do with honesty, with making something beautiful out of something not so beautiful.”

Julia Kwolyk, who earned a master’s degree from the School of Architecture in May, rehearses her solo.

From left to right, cast members Lori Derr, Kwolyk, Mariana Bell, Tucker Rogers, Lesly Gourdet and Edwina Herring. The cast was made up of a combination of volunteer and professional musicians, including a jazz quintet and a chamber quartet.

From left to right, cast members Lori Derr, Kwolyk, Mariana Bell, Tucker Rogers, Lesly Gourdet and Edwina Herring. The cast was made up of a combination of volunteer and professional musicians, including a jazz quintet and a chamber quartet.

Chris Kelly played the 12-year-old “J.B.,” a character loosely based on D’earth himself.

“He is such an amazing musician,” D’earth said of Kelly. “It was very difficult music, but it seemed so easy for him, which was exciting to watch.”

Chorus member Elayne Phillips sings during rehearsal.

D’earth rehearses with Kelli Strawbridge, at left. The intensive schedule involved in the one-month workshop meant that the cast members, many previously unknown to each other, came together quickly.

“The troupe of people turned out to be fantastic; everyone bonded in this amazing way,” D’earth said. Even after the workshop ended, the group has continued to meet every week to further develop the opera.

Kevin Eichenberger, a member of the jazz quintet, looks on as D’earth performs.

D’earth takes a pause during rehearsal to discuss his opera on camera.

From left to right, cast members and musicians Garen Dorsey, Kwolyk, Rucker, Derr and Rogers.

D’earth rehearses with Kwolyk.

As they prepare for the final performance, D’earth addresses his cast, including second-year student Braelyn Schenk, at left, who was both a cast member and an administrator for the opera, assisting D’earth with scheduling and logistics. 

“It was very exciting, very intense and the cast really turned into a family at the end,” Schenk said. “John was just so propelled by his passion for this opera that he has had in mind for 40 years, and we all caught onto that fire and kept going.”

After a month of rehearsals, Kelly takes the stage during the first live performance of D’earth’s opera. The Jan. 11 read-through performance was the culmination of the Live Arts workshop, performed in front of a packed house. Some would-be audience members were turned away at the door.

Francesco Ronchetti, third from left, leads a jazz-filled performance.

Erin Lunsford, a singer/songwriter and an alumna of the UVA McIntire Department of Music, takes her turn on stage.

D’earth, having finally seen his opera staged, leads the cast in a final song.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Senior Writer and Assistant Editor of Illimitable Office of University Communications