Eighteen years since he and librettist John Shoptaw “tossed around” the possibility of writing an opera about the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, composer Eric Sawyer is about to see the full realization of that idea.
The opera Sawyer and Shoptaw wrote, entitled Our American Cousin after the Tom Taylor Broadway comedy Lincoln and his wife were attending at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., that fateful night, receives its world premiere fully-staged performances on Friday and Saturday at the Academy of Music in Northampton
In March 2007, a concert version of Our American Cousin was given at Amherst College, where Sawyer has taught composition since 2002. The cast, orchestra (Boston Modern Orchestra Project, or BMOP), and conductor (Gil Rose) from that performance are back for the full version, along with a newly formed chorus directed by Amherst director of choral activities Mallorie Chernin.
In addition to his dual role as composer/producer, Sawyer has served as rehearsal pianist for his opera, an enviable position for a writer of music, whose role in the mounting of such a large work can end up rather distant from the action and removed from interpretive decisions.
“This week, however, I’ll be getting some help (at the piano),” Sawyer said, “so I can sit back and watch the staging rehearsals.” Stage director Carol Charnow has come to a thorough understanding of his music, and while she posed several questions early in the process, Sawyer said that she has developed convincing staging ideas and advises the singers to “just listen to the music - it will tell you what to do.”
The opera examines myth and history, both from the perspective of the actors who presented Our American Cousin for the president and his wife, and from that of Abraham and Mary Lincoln as they watched the play and the audience from their box on April 14, 1865.
The fresh national wounds inflicted by the Civil War and relationship between art and peace form a backdrop for the human drama that unfolds during the course of this play within a play.
“We have two narratives colliding,” Sawyer said. “There’s the comedy Our American Cousin and then there’s the script that John Wilkes Booth has written for himself that’s going to outdo all of his previous Shakespearean acting.”
“What everybody will know going into this,” Sawyer added, “is that Lincoln is going to be shot. Our challenge is to do what the comedy was supposed to do on that night it was seen, what people went to it for, to make them forget their cares and the bleak realities that surrounded them.”
The opera’s three acts detail the backstage events prior to the presentation of Cousin, the play itself, and the assassination and its aftermath.
Their approach furnished Sawyer and Shoptaw with a number of intriguing characters to inhabit and personalize their story. Anglo-American melodramatic actress and theater manager Laura Keene (sung by soprano Janna Baty) wielded the power to terrify her actors and mesmerize her audience. It was her touring company that presented Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre.
Actor Harry Hawk (tenor Alan Schneider) played the titular “cousin” Asa. Actor Jack Matthews (baritone Aaron Engebreth) carries a sealed letter (every opera worth its salt hinges on a weighty letter) from Booth (baritone Tom O’Toole) with instructions to deliver it the following day to a Washington newspaper.
Lincoln (baritone Donald Wilkinson) is seen enjoying the light-hearted play, but also musing on his own role on the national stage and the “blue-gray smoke and ashes” lingering from the war. Mary Lincoln (soprano Angela Gooch) bridles a bit at Keene’s magnetic hold on the audience, including her husband, but shares a tender moment with the president as they plan for their future “now that this pestilent war is over.” Her horrified reaction to his murder gives the opera its “mad scene.”
Within the play, the opportunistic friend of the Dundreary family, Mrs. Mountchessington (mezzo-soprano Janice Edwards), and her daughter Augusta “Gussie” (soprano Hillarie O’Toole) vie with Keene-as-Mary Dundreary for the “cousin’s” affections (and fortune). Actor Ned Emerson (baritone Drew Poling) and Dr. Leale (baritone Dan Kamalic) round out the principal cast members.
The chorus in the opera is divided into various constituencies that might have been in attendance at Ford’s Theater, among them freedmen, wounded soldiers, nurses, businessmen, etc. These groups have their own stories to tell, suggesting a slice-of-life picture of the social makeup and mood.
They join together at the opera’s conclusion for a meditative chorus, which, after a litany of Civil War battlefield names, begins the long healing process with the redemptive notion, “Already it runs together the shreds and ravellings might someday save us.”
Sawyer described his musical language as “lyrical extended tonality.” Period pieces (Ivesian castings of “Hail to the Chief” and choruses patterned on spirituals and marching songs) rub shoulders with set piece arias, including the Mark Twain-like “Possum aria” Asa sings to the Mountchessingtons in Act II and continuously flowing music-drama in the unfolding of the two-hour, 10-minute score.
For the singers in the cast, Our American Cousin presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - to create a role that has the potential to take its place in operatic history.
Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty (Keene) described the action of the opera as “by turns hilarious, thought-provoking, and heart-breaking.”
“As you can see, I feel very strongly about this piece,” she said.
Cousin is one of several roles tenor Alan Schneider (Hawk) has created in recent years. Performing in the Academy is particularly special for him, as his first starring role in an operatic production, that of Rinuccio in Commonwealth Opera’s Gianni Schicchi, took place at the Academy in 2000. The production also coincides with the release of the recording of Our American Cousin, made immediately after the 2007 concert performance.
“Gil and I sat for hours editing the recording,” Sawyer said, “to the point where Gil now walks around speaking in quotes from the libretto.” The CDs are currently at the factory and all are optimistic that they will appear in time for opening night.
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