Starting Monday, June 23, at 10 p.m. on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), viewers of the 10-episode series Operation Change will experience a raw and honest look at some of the most desolate, dangerous and poverty-stricken areas on our planet and what a team of courageous volunteers, celebrities and philanthropists are doing to help. Pioneering this gut-wrenching yet hope-inspiring docu-series are philanthropists Bill and Tani Austin and their son Steven Sawalich, with thought-provoking music by four-time Emmy Award-winning BMI composer William Ross and acclaimed music supervisor Lindsay Fellows. BMI asked the two soundtrack experts about their experiences working on this groundbreaking journey that reveals the unsung heroes of the world’s most challenging issues. Below are their stories.
How is Operation Change different from other series you’ve composed for and what has this experience meant to you?
William Ross: Each episode of Operation Change is an immersion into the lives of real people experiencing profound hardship. That hardship may be from poverty, disease, political instability, complete lack of infrastructure, crime…and more. These are stories of people’s lives in extremely difficult conditions and the physical and emotional difficulties that are the everyday reality of life under those circumstances.
These are real people. The drama created by telling their story is real, immediate and profound. To see a young boy or girl who is isolated and alone, without family and unable to make friends because they can’t hear…that is truly heartbreaking. Operation Change is the story of how one committed group, the Starkey Foundation and their partners, work to bring about change for the better in the life of that young boy or girl…and in the lives of people around the world who face overwhelming hardship. Writing music for those stories is an experience unlike any other.
This 10-episode series launches in Haiti and ends, across the world, in Papua, New Guinea. How did the very diverse cultures and backgrounds you were working in influence your writing?
WR: Each episode of Operation Change takes place in a different geographical and social environment. Musically, it’s a perfect opportunity to bring in the various instruments of whatever country and culture an episode revolves around. At a recent screening of one of the episodes, I met a young man from Papua, New Guinea. He was here in connection with the philanthropic work done in New Guinea, which forms the basis of one of the episodes. Since I have yet to score that episode, I asked him what instrument or instruments he would consider crucial to the music of the area he calls home. Without hesitation he smiled and said, ‘The Kundu drum. You must use the Kundu drum!’ His smile and animated enthusiasm for the music from his home brought a smile to my face…and will affect the sound of the music for that episode!
Steven Sawalich, in the video promoting the series, says, “…the basic thing Operation Change is doing is empowering people to empower themselves.” What journey do you hope your music and this series will take people on?
WR: Each week I tell Steven what an honor it is to be involved in Operation Change. I’ve been moved to tears so many times through the experience I’ve had on this series. My hope is that the music in Operation Change helps to bring out the deep emotions that are a part of every episode–anxiety, fear, sadness, determination, hope, joy, caring, love—and in so doing help make the journey that is Operation Change the profoundly moving and life changing experience that it has the capacity to be.
What dimension does the legendary William Ross add to this series, and how has the premise of Operation Change influenced your work?
Lindsay Fellows: When I starting temping early on, I knew Bill with his positive energy and wealth of experience would be an ideal composer to handle the emotional arcs to the characters, as well as the plethora of ethnic instrumentation needed to make each episode soar. The sheer volume of music he wrote is staggering and his focus has had a great impact on the series.
Operation Change and its team are true philanthropists with the goal of empowering others. That passion made me want to work harder than ever to make sure the tone of the music was perfect and that we were using music as a vehicle to connect the viewer to the stories and characters in a positive way.
How has working on Operation Change “changed” you, your music and the way you see/live your own life?
LF: The energy of the Operation team and the stories they bring home from their journeys can’t help but impact the way you look at your own life and the commonality we all share. It’s humbling to see those who have so little still find “light” and joy under such unbelievable hardship. To see someone regain their hearing is so emotionally gratifying it made me realize how lucky I am to have the gift of sound. We all have the opportunity every day to lift the spirits of someone, and it doesn’t take money and power, just time and compassion. I am blessed to work in the world of music every day, and this series has shown me once again how music can unite people from all walks of life and bring joy to those regardless of their circumstances.