By Jill Vejnoska
It's hard to imagine anything can top the high of writing an opera about Paula Deen and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but Vynnie Meli has managed to pull it off.
The Atlanta playwright has won the 2015 Stage Rights/NYMF Publishing Award for "ACAPPELLA," which was featured in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival. Meli wrote the book for ACAPPELLA (it's a new romantic comedy about a young gospel singer, NOT the earlier one about Krispy Kremes and Deen, just to keep things clear). It was featured in the three-week festival, the largest such annual event in the country. Stage Rights, an independent theatrical publisher, will offer performance rights to ACAPPELLA beginning early in 2016.
It's a big deal for Meli, whose other works include "Plagued — A Love Story," "September Tenth" and "Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings." And she's no stranger to honors here in Atlanta, having previously won the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award and the Atlanta Opera's 24 Hour Opera Project's Judges Award (along with different composers) for three consecutive years. One of those awards went to "Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens," a short, hilarious piece centering on Deen, that she wrote the lyrics for.
If you're not familiar with The 24 Hour Opera Project, here's how the AJC described it in a 2012 story where we followed participants through the arduous creative process:
On a stormy Friday evening in January, most of the 41 participants who'd come from around the country gathered at the church for a "kick off" event that mingled serious music talk with "Let's Make A Deal"-style antics. A theme was unveiled --- "Accidental Affair" --- that each opera would have to incorporate. Games of chance joined together composer-lyricist duos; another one assigned them props that they would have to work into their operas somehow.
One team got oven mitts and a teddy bear. Another, sausage links and a fishing net. Yet another, two colorful all-day suckers and a bottle marked "Poison."
"We're all pretty intrigued by the lollipops and poison, " admitted Kori Jennings, 32, a mezzo-soprano from Baton Rouge who's sung with major companies such as the Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Lousiane.
Earlier that day, she'd made the eight-hour drive from Louisiana with another singer. Their conversation had veered between shared nervousness over having to perform entirely new music and jokes about how this felt like being in an episode of "The Bachelor" --- right down to the "confession cam" that all participants would have to "talk to" at least once during the 24-hour period.
"We were like, 'Do we stage a fight or do we cry?' " quipped Jennings.
Singers and directors wouldn't learn their team assignments until the following morning --- after the composer/lyricist duos had spent 12 hours creating their pieces from scratch and then entrusted them to strangers.
"At 6 a.m., you have to be done!" Emmalee Iden, the Atlanta Opera's "24-Hour" maestro, warned those duos just before sending them off to their separate rooms with a promise of endless Red Bull and pizza at midnight. "It will be a mad, opera lock-in!"
One of the teams we chose to follow included Meli, who'd been randomly paired with Jennifer Jolley, a composing PhD. student at the University of Cincinnati. Somehow, their creative genius came up with an idea of an operatta entitled "Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens," that centered on the Butter Queen herself, Paula Deen:
"Unlike some other teams, their two randomly assigned props --- a rolling pin and big hunk of fake cheese --- go together perfectly. Too perfectly?
"That was almost a distraction, " Meli recalled later. "It was, 'OK, obviously, we're in a kitchen. That doesn't give us any jumping off point to something greater.'"
But seeing an angel's harp among that pile of props does. So does a freewheeling conversation the duo has back in their work room about televised cooking shows, and --- who else but the operatic queen of such shows? --- Paula Deen.
"It just came out that she has diabetes, if we want to be topical, " Meli muses aloud. "But, oh no, there has to be an affair. An accidental affair."
"Is there anything else? That angel's harp?" Jolley suggests. "It could be an other-worldly thing ..."
Over the next several hours, the pair settles on and sharpens a story line about Deen having to defend her life (or more accurately, her overly rich cooking life) in an effort to get into heaven. Some ideas they eventually dismiss as unworkable: "It's a four-syllable word, " Jolley explained weeks later about the decision to drop any mention of Deen's diabetes. "The thing that's most difficult about an opera libretto is you have to be so minimal. Four-syllable words you have to take out."
Other notions are truly inspired from the get-go. Such as a "Butter Aria, " which simply sounds deliciously fun, yet ends up being absolutely crucial to establishing the plot's "accidental affair:" When the Deen character (soprano Christine Lyons, a Fayetteville native) "seduces" the two angels (Yates and Georgia State graduate Sondra Collins) who are hell bent on denying her entree into heaven.
"She'd sing, 'Here taste it, Here t-a-s-t-e it!' to the angels who've never had butter before, " Meli proposes.
"That might be something, " Jolley concurs, not long before she and Meli go to separate corners to begin working on "Krispy Kremes' " music and lyrics."