Stage Door News

St. Augustine, FL: U. of T. grad Tawnie Olson wins the Dominick Argento Chamber Opera Composition Competition

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Tawnie Olson’s work, Sanctuary and Storm, with a libretto by Roberta Barker, has been selected as the winner of the Dominick Argento Chamber Opera Competition from the finalists at the 2022 National Conference in St. Augustine, Florida. This work will be produced in its entirety by the University of Houston at the January 2023 National Conference in Houston.

About Sanctuary and Storm


Prologue: The Angel

An Angel stands in the audience, watching a collage of images of human history. He sings the words of Walter Benjamin: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe...” Two women emerge from this pageant of the dead: Eleanor, Queen of the English, and Hildegard, Abbess of Rupertsburg, once the two most powerful women in Europe.

Scene 1: A Wall Battered by a Storm

Through the Angel’s eyes, we are returned to the 1160s. Eleanor visits Hildegard in Rupertsburg, seeking her advice about the crisis in her marriage to Henry II. Hildegard responds with words from her surviving letter to Eleanor, advising her to seek peace.

Scene 2: Tribulations

Eleanor struggles with this advice. Is it so wrong to be ambitious, to revel in human life and change? God sees the folly of human striving, Hildegard replies. Eleanor taunts Hildegard with the joys of sex and children, Hildegard cries out that nothing compares to spiritual bliss.

Scene 3: Vision

As the women reach the height of their argument, the Angel appears and sings to both. They are terrified, enraptured. Each one sings what she hears/sees/feels. The Angel kisses each woman on the lips, and goes.

Scene 4: Flee This and Attain Stability

In the space left by the Angel, the two women confess the emptiness they have always felt when passion departs. They acknowledge that their fierce desire for something better transcends the differences that divide them.

Epilogue: The Storm

The Angel reappears in the audience. He begins to watch history again, flickering over the faces of Eleanor and Hildegard. The three sing together of human longing and the possibility of transcendence.


Angelus Novus, A Messenger (baritone)

Hildegard, Abbess of Rupertsburg bei Bingen (mezzo-soprano)

Eleanor (Aliénor), Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of the Normans (soprano)


Described as “especially glorious… ethereal” by Whole Note and “a highlight of the concert” by the Boston Musical Intelligencer, the music of Canadian composer Tawnie Olson has been performed by a wide range of ensembles and individual musicians, including the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the Land’s End Ensemble, Duo Fiolûtröniq, Parthenia, New Morse Code, the Wanmu Percussion Trio, the McGill, University of Calgary, and University of Toronto Percussion Ensembles, bassoonists Nadina Mackie Jackson and Rachael Elliott, percussionists Shawn Mativetsky and Ian David Rosenbaum, harpsichordist Katelyn Clark, clarinetists Louise Campbell and Paul Roe, the Canadian Chamber Choir, the Toronto Chamber Choir, the Guelph Chamber Choir, the choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Norfolk Festival Choir, the Yale Camerata, and NOTUS: Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. She has won awards from the SOCAN foundation and the Guelph Chamber Choir/Musica Viva, and is a two-time semifinalist in the Sorel Foundation competition. Her composition Scel lem duib, for chamber chorus and harp, was one of three works selected (out of 170 submissions) for publication in the National Collegiate Choral Organization’s 2013 choral music series.

Recent projects include Something to Say, for tabla, spoken word, and fixed media, composed at the request of Shawn Mativetsky, Spring and Fall – to a young child, commissioned by Janet Galván and Ithaca College for the Ithaca College Choir, Spinning and Weaving, commissioned by Duo Novus, and Sailing to Byzantium, for modified Pierrot ensemble, commissioned by the Thin Edge New Music Collective. In 2010 a recording of her composition Chantez à l’Éternel was released on the Canadian Chamber Choir’s CD, “In Good Company,” in 2011 Rachael Elliott released a recording of À mon seul désir on the album “Polka the Elk,” in 2013 Plainsong was released on Catherine Lee ‘s new album, “Social Sounds,” and in 2014 Shawn Mativetsky issued Something to Say as a digital release.

Olson holds a doctorate in music composition from the University of Toronto, a Master of Music degree from the Yale School of Music, an Artist Diploma from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale and a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Calgary.

Photo: Tawnie Olson. © 2015.