It sounds like the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, history category: What was playing at Ford’s Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? The answer, for those not up on their Civil War-era minutiae, is Our American Cousin, a rather slight comedy of manners by British writer Tom Taylor.
From this seemingly innocuous historical detail came the inspiration for an opera by composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw. Also called Our American Cousin, the opera has its first staged performances tonight and Sunday in Northampton, with the Boston Modern Orchestra under Gil Rose. The orchestra recorded the piece for its BMOP Sound label shortly after the opera’s first concert performance last spring. (The recording goes on sale at this weekend’s performances.)
Sawyer, who teaches music at nearby Amherst College, says that he and Shoptaw - a Berkeley poet and longtime friend - were struck by the idea of Lincoln watching a farce about a buffoonish American visiting his genteel English cousins at a time when the bloodiest chapter in the nation’s history had just come to an close. It was just the kind of anomalous situation that can give an opera its productive tension.
“You have to be struck by the contrast of him being at this show at this moment,” says Sawyer during a phone interview. “What he and everybody else would be doing at the theater would be forgetting, in a way - giving themselves a break from the heavy things that they had to think about.”
The piece had a long gestation; the pair began plotting out the opera about a dozen years ago. One of Sawyer’s first tasks was “to learn to work with John’s poetry, which is quite full of reference and music and richness. I wanted to bring it across with both clarity and bringing out all of the subtleties that are in the language.”
One of their aims was to take some of the focus off of John Wilkes Booth and give voice to others who were at the theater that night. Chief among those is Laura Keene, the Ford’s director (sung by mezzo soprano Janna Baty). She was a Broadway star and one of the few women to head an American theater company.
“She kept her theater open during the war when a lot of other people had shut down,” Sawyer says. “She invited [Lincoln] to the show. And she thought she was making a sanctuary where people could set their cares aside, and then their memories would come back to them refreshed.”
The opera opens with a wistful prelude. There’s an allusion hidden in the first few notes, which spell out the opening melody of Hail to the Chief. Yet they’re harmonized in such a way as to drain them of their pomp and make them bittersweet and nostalgic.
Sawyer says that the prelude is a meditation on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and in particular its call for healing and forgiveness: “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
The opera is in three acts. The first introduces the main characters as well as the theater audience, in roles sung by members of the chorus. Lincoln arrives, and the second act is devoted to an adaptation of Taylor’s play. There are interjections from the audience, including an extended aria from Lincoln as he compares himself with the boorish American onstage. There’s a clear musical difference between the two acts: Where the first is written in fluid extended tonality, the second has a lighter flavor, colored by the Broadway and show tune styles of the time.
The parallel realities of the real world and that of the theater collide in the third act, as Lincoln is shot at the play’s biggest laugh. Some members of the audience apparently thought that Booth’s clumsy getaway - he broke his leg as he leaped from Lincoln’s box onto the stage - was a gag in the show. For a moment, at least, reality and theater, comedy and tragedy, have intermingled.
In the opera, awareness of what has just happened brings competing calls for justice and mercy from the audience members. Laura Keene is left with a heavy, lingering sense of guilt that extends beyond that single evening. “Was I wrong, all these years, to hold open our doors?” she sings. “Was I wrong to believe that art brings peace?”
“We don’t end with that question,” Sawyer explains. “We end with a chorus of remembrance that steps out of the historical moment and looks back beyond that night to the war.”
In that ghostly closing number, the chorus recites a list of Civil War battlefields, a reminder that Lincoln was, in some sense, the war’s final casualty. A play that began as an invitation to forget offers at the end a pathway to remembering, and perhaps healing.
At the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton; 800-595-4849, ouramericancousin.com
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