November 14, 2014
By Rachel Rogol

On a big screen in Milan last month, in front of an audience that totaled more than 18,000 people over the course of four days, an innovative Amherst chamber opera set to film made its international debut during the city’s Design Film Festival.

ARCHITECT, inspired by the life and work of renowned architect Louis Kahn, is the result of a collaboration by three of Amherst College’s composers: Jenny Kallick, professor of music; Lewis Spratlan, Pulitzer Prize-winner and the Peter R. Pouncey Professor of Music, Emeritus; and John Downey ’03, currently a physician and fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine. (You may have read about the opera in a November 2011 article on the Amherst website.)

Dream Woman, watercolor by Michiko Theurer

Kallick, Spratlan and Downey worked with the College's instrumental music director Mark Lane Swanson, soprano Julia Fox ’07 and visual artist Michiko Theurer ’11 to create the highly conceptual film, which was first screened in 2011 at the Center for Architecture Foundation (CFAF) in New York. 

Dream Woman, created for ARCHITECT
by Michiko Theurer ’11

“Once we had our first screening,” Kallick says, “we were immediately approached for [additional] screenings in New York and Chicago.” After its premiere at CFAF, ARCHITECT was featured in the Chicago Architecture & Design Film Festival and the New York City Architecture & Design Film Festival, both in 2012. 

“These screenings,” continues Kallick, “led to requests for screenings in Louis Kahn buildings”—the Yale Center for British Art, designed by Kahn, hosted a screening in 2012—“and then more [requests from] film festivals with an emphasis on architecture and design.”

MiCue Milano Design, an Italian company that promotes and develops projects related to architecture and design, contacted Kallick for a copy of the DVD and then decided to include it in their October 2014 Milano Design Film Festival. ARCHITECT made its international debut at the four-day festival alongside 70 other films, including Robert Redford’s Cathedrals of Culture, also inspired in part by architect Louis Kahn.

“[ARCHITECT] creates the presence of the central characters without ever showing them on screen,” reads the festival description for the film. “The emotional weight and meaning of the text are conveyed through a blend of ever-changing watercolors, photographs and video, overlaid with the words to aid the audience’s focus on the characters and their identities.”

And it’s no coincidence that the film’s creative visual elements, combined with the opera’s inspired musical score and vocals, produce an experience similar to Kahn’s own assertion: “To hear a sound is to see a space.”

Though none of the Amherst collaborators were able to attend the festival screening, Kallick credits her “amazing team” for the film’s continued success and says, “[We] all wish we could have been there.”