Backstage at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on the night of April 14, 1865, Ned Emerson is rehearsing his sneeze.
Fellow actor Harry Hawk receives bad news. The man he paid to perform his service in the Civil War, ended just five days earlier, has died in combat.
Actor John Wilkes Booth, a familiar face, though not in the cast that evening, approaches Jack Mathews with a sealed letter and a request to deliver it to John Coyle, editor of the National Intelligencer, the following day.
In the front of the house the audience is filtering in, including distinguished guests President Lincoln and the First Lady. They’ve all come to enjoy a touring production of Broadway’s first smash hit, the farce Our American Cousin, and to forget, for the space of an evening, the wrenching war just past, the monumental task of reunification ahead.
None suspect that halfway through Act III, Scene 2 of Tom Taylor’s comedic romp, Booth, a premier American actor and dedicated son of the Confederacy, will take advantage of a momentary roar of hilarity to fatally shoot the nation’s 16th president.
Next week in Northampton, a new opera by composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw will transport an audience back to that night at Ford’s Theater, recounting the events through the eyes of those who were there. Live in Concert Inc. presents the world premiere of Our American Cousin June 20 at 7:30 p.m. and June 22 at 3 p.m. at the Academy of Music.
“In so many ways the Academy is part of our set,” said Sawyer, a professor of composition at Amherst College. While The Academy opened 30 years after Ford’s Theater, in 1891, there are several connections between the two. For example, Joseph Jefferson, who created the role of the Cousin character Asa Dundreary on Broadway, later performed at the Academy.
“At 800 seats, the Academy is about the same size as Ford’s,” Sawyer said, “which is a great size for opera, because it’s intimate, but, with the boxes and the decor, it’s very grand at the same time.”
The premiere represents the culmination of a decade-long project for Sawyer - who is also the producer of the opera - and Shoptaw, a poet and professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
“John has written a poetic and accessible libretto, and Eric has written a beautiful score,” said Stage Director Carole Charnow, who is the general director of Opera Boston, an innovative company in residence at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre. “The score has a very modern feel to it, but it’s also lyrical and accessible,” she said, “so it has the best of both worlds.”
Within a musical language of lyrical extended tonality, arias range from a tall tale of possum herding in the play Our American Cousin to Mary Lincoln’s post-assassination outburst. Choral material touches on the bitter humor of wounded veterans and freed slaves’ song of liberation. Sawyer has enlisted the talents of the award-winning Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and its founder, Gil Rose, as the opera’s music director and conductor.
Rose is also music director of Opera Boston, which has garnered its own lion’s share of awards under his leadership. Charnow is unequivocal in her praise. “He’s one of America’s greatest conductors of new music,” she said. “Gil Rose is in a class by himself.”
The Boston Globe concurred in this recent rave: “Music director Gil Rose is some kind of genius; his concerts are wildly entertaining, intellectually rigorous and meaningful. He combines a fanatical attention to detail with a hang-loose insouciance that sets the tone for the entire orchestra.”
A CD of the opera has just been released on the BMOP label, and will be available at the premieres.
You are there
The opera begins backstage, moving to the front of the house as the 19th-century audience files in. Reflecting the demographic of the crowd that night - women waiting for their men to return from war, freedmen and freedwomen, injured veterans, nurses and businessmen who had profited from the war - five chorus groups sing their particular perspectives as they arrive.
The mood lightens, as it would have that night, as Act II presents an adaptation of the play Our American Cousin, in which hilarity is wrung from the visit of a backwoods American cousin to a land-poor English lord. In Act III Booth completes his plan, leaving chaos, recriminations and ultimately a glimmer of healing in his wake.
The stellar lineup of performers includes Alan Schneider, Aaron Engebreth, Drew Poling, Donald Wilkinson, Angela Gooch, Tom O’Toole, Hillarie O’Toole, Janice Edwards and Daniel Kamalic in principal roles. Janna Baty sings the role of 19th-century Broadway director Laura Keene, who had fought fiercely through debt and disapproval to keep her theater company onstage during the war, committed to the notion that art had a role to play in bringing peace.
Before taking the role of Mary Dundreary in the evening’s comedy, she greets the audience, reflecting on the war, the elephant in the room. But she invites them to “forget awhile, everything that’s come and gone, till your memories come back to you refreshed.”
Her message articulates the heart of the opera, which rings with echoes of shattering, fragmentation and dismemberment before pointing the way to the beginning of healing, reunion and remembering - in the music, in the action and in the words.
“‘Remember’ is for me the word of words,” said Shoptaw. “It’s a word that has that all-important prefix ‘re’ as in reunion. [In the opera] every time you hear the word member and remember, it’s not an accident.”
He said that in the end, it is the struggle to remember that unites the disparate theater audience. As they recollect the steps from Hispaniola to Appomattox, they sing, in unison:
Funny how hard it is to remember, to piece it all together,
to pick up the threads and thrums....
It’s a journey that many feel hasn’t ended yet, one that runs through Birmingham, Selma and the 2008 presidential election.
“When the theater audience sings to the opera audience, it’s like a mirror and very powerful,” Shoptaw says. “They’re all singing together for the first time, an outward sign of reunion.
“They were there, and they’d all lost people [in the war]. I think when I finally hear people singing together as one it brings out the hope that we all have for this country. We can’t move forward as a nation unless we move together.”
Tickets for the world premiere performances of Our American Cousin at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St. in Northampton, range from $15 to $50 with discounts for seniors and students. They can be reserved by calling (800) 595-4849, or online at www.ouramericancousin.com.