Eric Sawyer’s Opera About Lincoln’s Assassination Premières x 2

by Marvin J. Ward
Northampton, MA, 21 June 2008. The Academy of Music, the City’s 800-seat 1892 Opera House, one of the oldest municipally owned ones in the nation, was the venue yesterday evening for the first staged performance of Our American Cousin, by composer and Amherst College Professor Eric Sawyer and librettist, poet and UC Berkeley Professor John Shoptaw.

The title is that of the farcical comedy which the President was watching at Ford’s Theater when he was shot on Good Friday, 14 April 1865, by actor John Wilkes Booth, an actor and acquaintance of Laura Keene, the head of the troupe, though he was not a member of the cast that evening.  The piece has been more than a dozen years in the making and was given in concert form at Amherst College on 31 March 2007, performance which I also attended.  A studio recording was made on the BMOP Sound label and could be ordered at the performance.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project inder the baton of Gil Rose was in the pit.

The opera is a quite complex work, carrying 3 plot lines with explicit and implicit parallels and interconnections between them and several related themes, to wit: the event of the assassination, the play itself, and the personal lives of some of the actors in the troupe, and the practice of hiring a substitute to go into battle during the Civil War and the various issues of the War’s aftermath.  Several members of the cast were in fact members of 2 or 3 different casts, playing different roles in the various plotlines, and the members of the chorus also served as members of the audience with the Lincolns viewing the play.  This presents challenges for performers and audience alike.

Although portraying historical personages and events, the libretto took some liberties with details.  For example, the script of the play was not entirely that of its author Tom Taylor.  The home state of the main character was changed from Vermont to “Hillynois.”  Indeed, in a bid to appeal to the contemporary audience, some of the humor came from plays on words that would not have been understood at the time, although in general an obvious attempt was also made to use period language.

All of the singing was first rate.  Diction was excellent throughout, and everything was readily understood, rendering the supertitles somewhat superfluous and validating the reputed acoustic of the hall, which is actually similar in size and layout to Ford’s Theater.  The dramatic incarnation of the characters by all the singers was also outstanding, although mezzo-soprano Janna Baty as Laura Keene had perhaps the broadest range of all of acting and emotion to display.  Because of her skill with this together with her superb singing, for this viewer she stole the show.

The music is modern without being dissonant.  It is also varied with each of the 3 plotlines, and incorporates snippets of familiar period tunes such as “Hail to the Chief” and “Dixie,” whose refrain is also echoed in the libretto at one point.  Indeed, both the music and the text are so carefully crafted and intricately constructed that the listener must be ever alert if s/he is to take it all in.  There is not a huge difference or contrast between recitative and aria, since the latter do not have any repetitions of text; the one flows into the other, and there are not a large number of arias per se, the one by Lincoln being especially noteworthy.

One of the striking aspects of the music is the use of the chorus.  The theatre audience arriving at the end of Act I divides into 5 groups, some singers being members of more than one, with choreographed shifts of position to the center to signal the formation of the group: Women, Amputees, Freedmen and Freedwomen, Nurses, and Businessmen.  Each sings about how the War affected it, all a cappella; this is remarkably effective.  The chorus also concludes the work, accompanied this time, with a meditation that lists the major battles of the War, with Ford’s Theater the last item in the list.

The major problem with the work is that it is very cerebral, heady stuff, and does not draw the listener into its drama in any emotional way, although it deals with subjects that drained the emotions and the very lives of its characters.  Unless it be Laura Keene, there is no central figure with whom to identify or empathize, nor a readily identifiable dominant theme to admire or espouse.  The audience is an observer and not in any way, even vicariously, engaged.  Neither is there a melody that you might leave the theatre humming or even one that sticks in your mind.  Yet the music suits and supports the text extremely well, never clashing with it or standing out above it.

The program booklet was as outstanding as the performance, containing cast and scene setting lists, a synopsis, brief notes by the composer and librettist, a fine essay by Klára Móricz (about whom nary a word, however), all re-used from the 2007 program book, and appropriate artist and production staff bios, as well as lists of supporters and some ads, all in a clean, unpretentious, simply black and white product.  Like the work, content took precedence over display, and was appropriate for the period of the piece.

The work is overall an impressive achievement.  The opening act is filled with a sense of dark intrigue and anticipation.  The portion drawn from the original play, primarily in Act II, is light and entertaining.  The final portion is more somber and contemplative, and for that reason, seemed to drag because the major dramatic event was already history.  While these historical events and facts may contain the elements of great opera, history has not too often been the subject of popularly successful operatic works.  Perhaps it is precisely because of the difficulty of drawing the audience in to such subjects to be something other than a distant and detached observer?  Nonetheless, this work deserves many future productions because of its superior artistic, albeit highly intelletctual qualities.


Big Themes, Big Performances Boost Our American Cousin

by David Perkins

Northampton, MA, 23 June 2008. It is rare to encounter an opera première outside the big cities or big festivals but Amherst composer Eric Sawyer and Berkeley poet John Shoptaw have done the almost-impossible. They raised $100,000 (from foundations and generous individuals), enlisted the talent (some of it from Opera Boston), and produced their new opera, Our American Cousin, on Friday at the Academy of Music in this town. This was its first fully staged performance. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project was in the pit, led by Gil Rose. Six hundred people turned out, which must be considered a good showing for such a venture.

Aaron Copland referred to opera as "la forme fatale." Its difficulties are legion, but when it works, it is a miracle. Opera explores hidden parts of the psyche as nothing else can, through the heightened emotional speech that is singing, and in an atmosphere close to dream, in which characters move in and out of our subconscious. We are all Carmen or Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov, or Mephistopheles for a time.
Our American Cousin has no such complex central personality. This is something different: an opera of ideas. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it explores big, rather vague themes - the nature of playacting versus responsibility, for one; the healing powers of art, for another - while, in the foreground, we witness the preparation and presentation of a Victorian melodrama, "Our American Cousin," at Ford's Theatre on Lincoln's last night.

The set (designed by Christopher Ostrom) shows us Ford's Theatre from an angle, with a small, candlelit stage, seats for an audience, and the presidential box with bunting on stage left. This worked well for the "Cousin" scenes. For the more intimate backstage action, the players' plotting, reflecting, and joking, the small stage seemed far away. Director Carole Charnow might have used the Academy's own projecting boxes to wrap the drama around us.

The singer-actors were all splendid. Everyone was up to Sawyer's difficult intervals and enunciated so well that the supertitles overhead were unnecessary. They acted as well as they sang. Among the best turns were Alan Schneider's as the well-meaning bumpkin Asa Dundreary and Aaron Engebreth's oily John Coyle. Janna Baty, as Laura Keene, the proprietress of the troupe and the lead in "Cousin," sang with full, round tone and a strong presence.

In Act II, we get "Our American Cousin," a good deal of it. Sawyer's music becomes lighter and points up the bad jokes and stock sentiment with touches of popular song. In the middle, Lincoln (Donald Wilkinson) sings a brief aria about his ugliness, the Constitution, and what sounds like guilt over his late awakening to the evil of slavery.

In Act III, John Wilkes Booth has his big moment. This is puzzlingly underplayed. A program note tells us this was deliberate, to shift the focus to the other characters. Why, then, have Booth (Tom O'Toole) lurk and sing so impressively beforehand? And, here, at this crucial moment, Sawyer's music falls silent, when the crowd would have been churning with laughter, shouts, and shrieks.

Our American Cousin has creaky joints, too many overlapping situations, and a constantly shifting focus. At the same time, it has several passages when words and music come together exquisitely. One is the series of choruses in Act I, when the Ford's Theatre audience turns and reforms into groups representing the war's human aftermath - amputees, freedmen, nurses, carpetbaggers, etc., singing words culled from real diaries and letters. Here is Sawyer's most beautiful music, drenched in a bittersweet chromaticism reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. These, and a final chorus condemning the cycle of "blood for blood," might well be packaged separately. They speak clearly to our day.

Reprinted with permission from The Boston Globe.