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Karen Lauria Saillant, of International Opera Theater and The Fire, believes in unity, peace, and healing through music

Artblog Community Intern Ashwin Suseendran interviews "World Percussion for Peace" event organizer Karen Lauria Saillant. A renaissance woman, she is also the "International Opera Theater" founder and the owner of local bar and music venue "The Fire." Both musicians, Ashwin and Karen share a heartfelt conversation about the language of music and its healing abilities. Be on the lookout for Karen's upcoming projects- info below!

Karen Lauria Saillant (middle) surrounded by the 4 Scottish members (two men and one women) who make up the band "The Ronains"
Karen prepandemic at The Fire with her beloved friends, The Ronains, Scotland super band after their show

Author’s Preface: Today, I had the honor of speaking with Karen Lauria Saillant. Karen is a lifelong opera singer and creator, as well as the founder of the International Opera Theater and The Fire – the only female-owned music venue in Philadelphia. Most recently, she organized the annual World Percussion for Peace showcase.

Ashwin Suseendran: Hi Karen! I’m Ashwin Suseendran, a student of jazz piano, education, and geography at Temple University as well as a contributor for Philly arts publication Artblog. Given my avid interest in ethnomusicology, I thought it would be amazing to write about your World Percussion for Peace show as well as any other projects you have recently undertaken, given that you do so much great work for this city’s arts scene.

I’ll open up by asking, when did you discover your passion for music and how has your career path led you to where you are today?

Karen Lauria Saillant: Well, I started studying the piano when I was four years old, but even before that I was dancing, singing and creating. I grew up in a foster home here in Philadelphia, and was very fortunate to have scholarships at Settlement Music School. Are you aware of settlement? This amazing music school that we have here in Philadelphia?

I studied there until I went off to Indiana University-Bloomington on a full scholarship. In my junior year, I came back home to take care of my ailing foster father. Then I graduated from Temple, sang the National Anthem at graduation, and went on to have a career as an opera singer and eventually, an opera creator.

AS: Right! So you’ve done work as a performer, educator, writer, organizer, and healer – given your work in breathing coordination – how do you balance all those ventures, and have priorities changed at different points in your life?

KLS: Well, yes. Now, I’m the owner of a music venue in Philadelphia [The Fire]. My husband bought this shot-and-beer bar in 1988 and then he went into a coma in 1999. I was left running it and I knew nothing about the bar business, so I started a music venue here. It’s really interesting, I think it helps a person keep young to have a lot of different activities in their lives.

I’m very lucky because both of my sons are creative artists who work with me and help me. I have a lot of people all over the world helping me actually.

I guess there’s so much joyfulness with each new project. For example, we decided we wanted to do World Percussion for Peace and then we did it. Same goes for creating our 17th world premiere Italian opera with artists from over 40 different countries.

It’s just so thrilling to be able to help artists transform themselves and their own art. It’s a life of so much diversity, so many challenges, so many deadlines, so much exhaustion. Having to overcome obstacles and keep going even when you think things are falling apart… like making operas in Italy and deciding the night before that the set doesn’t work, then staying up all night with designers changing the set…

In the arts, you have a performance and you’ve committed to that date and you must arrive. So artists in that sense are amazing at getting things done and using, in our case, a lot of intuition.

AS: You’re right, it’s really such a collaborative workspace when you’re an artist – we’re juggling so many things, and since there’s a show involved there’s accountability necessary. Next, I wanted to ask: knowing that you were originally from Indiana, spent time in Philadelphia and Italy among other places, how has geography played a part in your ideation and performance of various projects?

KLS: It’s turned out to be one of the most important aspects of everything I do. World peace – bringing people together in a model that we can hopefully translate to the United Nations as the business model of intercultural communication. Location is interesting – things change when I’m in Città della Pieve, working in a beautiful space right outside of the city with my friend Benedict Day at her house.

It feels different than when we’re working here at The Fire. The internet allows us to showcase international works and bring together so many different cultures into one project.

That said, the place does matter because the town has some kind of magic, you know? It’s a Medieval town with a lot of Renaissance activities. Pietro Perugino, Raphael’s teacher who himself has works in the Sistine Chapel, was born in this town. It’s in Umbria, which is the region of peace in Italy because it’s near Assisi, where we’ve also premiered works for the Assisi Suono Sacro Festival.

A wreath of laurel made out of different National flags surrounding a grayscale image of Dante Alighieri
“Date 700 Opera Per La Pace” Courtesy Karen Lauria Saillant

Dante says – and we’re doing an opera about Dante right now to honor the 700th anniversary of his death – we’re like fish in one giant sea. I love that idea that we’re not separated, that we’re all together. We’re all part of one humanity. It is such a worthy objective in anyone’s life to be engaged in world peace.

AS: That is so powerful, and a perfect transition to what I was going to ask next. What sparked this idea to do the World Percussion for Peace project and how long has this been going on?

KLS: Well, it started last year. We were doing these world unity open mic events once a week virtually. And there’s something powerful about percussion. Oh, it really makes me cry, the power of the beat of all of these instruments, so many of them being created by hand, about the spontaneity, the authenticity, the humanity of the voice being heard through drums.

Last year, I told my son I wanted to do a world peace percussion event and made the proposal to National Independent Venue Week – they loved the idea. They invited us back again this year and the showcase now includes 20 countries. This year we even added tap dancing from India, Australia, and England. We had Freddy Miranda from Venezuela help us get in touch with Colombia, Spain, and Hungary. My assistant, Sophia, helped night and day in finding percussion groups, writing to them, asking them to participate.

AS: So it really was a shot in the dark search? Shows the power of the internet.

KLS: Right! It’s very difficult to do this. It might seem easy, but you really need to use Ausstrahlung, which means your charisma, your emanations, your ability to be in what we call the primary impulse. So, we’d find countries and start looking for percussion groups on YouTube, Facebook, etc. from there. Then, we’d go back to the country list and let them pop out at us. Or if you’re listening to somebody, let the country just come into your mind because we all have that ability for information to come to us from the stratosphere. It’s a serendipitous kind of thing.

AS: Absolutely, serendipitous is a good way to put it. I also noticed the presence of Taiwanese children drumming in the performance, so I wanted to ask specifically: how does educating children play a role in your work with this project and beyond?

KLS: Oh, you’re giving me chills, Ashwin, it’s so important. Freddy Miranda’s children’s drum group felt so inspired to represent Venezuela in our project. Even with the operas that we do, we always have children in our world premiere productions because after all, they’re the future. Being on the stage in Città della Pieve’s Teatro Degli Avvaloranti is an amazing experience for a child. We’ve also done [Brundibar and the Children of Theresienstadt], the Holocaust children’s opera and an all children’s opera which we called AZAIO. We did a production at the Rosenbach here in Philadelphia, where I was commissioned to create a work to celebrate the life and works of children’s writer Maurice Sendak. We’ve had a multicultural children’s choir, which has performed at the National Constitution Center here in Philadelphia. Children are really at the heart of the work that we do because without them, there is no future.

AS: The extent to which you work with children is inspiring to me as a teacher! As artists know, our studies are a language to pass down.

KLS: Yes, I’m so glad you’re doing that. Jesse Mell’s Mad Beatz Philly group works mainly with young people because they bring a passion and positive energy to your project, and the same goes for professional opera singers.

We’ve done new works in 21 theaters in the United States and Italy. We’re supposed to be doing a new opera for children about the opioid crisis in Philadelphia. It’s based on a successful movie produced by Philly Born Films, and the Amy Winehouse Foundation is involved with it in England.

AS: That hits very deep. It’s been a crisis for a long time, but art is a great medium to express these things.

KLS: Do you agree that people are realizing music is powerfully healing?

AS: Definitely. It’s like a universal language that everybody can understand – it triggers emotions for everyone, and has a naturally nostalgic quality.

KLS: Amazing.

AS: Truly. That’s just everything I had for you today, Karen! I am so grateful for your time.

KLS: Thank you so much, Ash. It’s been a pleasure, I’ve loved talking with you in this interview and thank you so much for your support for what we’re doing at The Fire and at the International Opera Theater, I hope you’ll tune in for our 17th world premiere Opera in Flow.

AS: I’m so glad there are more projects coming up. I encourage everyone reading this to stay tuned – I know I certainly will. Thank you, Karen!

Keep your eye out for Karen’s upcoming teen opera titled “SNO BABIES” as well as The Fire’s 5-day, 30+ band grand reopening “We Made It Festival” from September 8th to September 12th!