In the 30 years I’ve covered Portland Opera—through many changes in administration, artistic direction and philosophy—I’ve never seen such a compelling program as this month’s Journeys to Justice. It began streaming April 16 and will continue through May 31. You can purchase a digital pass through Portland Opera, at a $50 suggested price, though there’s a “Pay What You will Option” for as little as $5.
The creative and accomplished quality of singing, staging, lighting, costumes, hair design! –the twinning of operatic and theatrical values came together as these six art songs and chamber operas based on Black experience (and written in the last 30 years) unfolded across 75 minutes with no intermission. Cutting-edge and contemporary in style, and convincingly done on camera, Journeys reached into the deep folds of pain and occasional jubilance that define Black American culture in a historically white supremacist landscape.
The high level of the material, or grist for the program, was stunning and eye-opening even in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict, and the April murder of 20-year-old Daunte Wright. Black Americans have been, and are, treated differently, and this music brings it home.
Most of the works are ones with which many—I would guess most—opera-goers are unfamiliar. That’s a reasonable assumption; several have been composed in the past three years and have been staged only once before.
More familiar are “Your Daddy’s Child” from Broadway’s late-‘90s Ragtime and the final song of Adolphus Hailstork’s 1992 Songs of Love and Justice, based on a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon (“when evil men plot, good men must plan”). Both were sung soulfully and tenderly by soprano Lynnesha Crump, a PO Resident Artist. Crump owned the stage in the final Hailstork piece, balancing with poise an elaborate headpiece that reached to the stars. Crump and her four fellow Resident Artists are not newbies to opera. All have advanced music degrees, and their performing maturity is clear.
We can thank PO’s new (since July) co-artistic advisor Damien Geter for curating the wide range of music in this short program. Fortunately and intentionally, not all work focused on trauma, a logically common subject of Black art. Songs for the African Violet by composer/librettist Jasmine Barnes opens the program, celebrating the Black woman’s resilience and unsung struggle for respect. As Barnes said in an interview before the opera, Black women are “under-protected but thought to be strong and so often called on by others. There are so many things that Black women can be a victim of.”
The piece demands a soprano’s upper register, pushing Leah Hawkins to reach a stratospheric high C in the final “Crown” movement. Philadelphia-based soprano Hawkins, a friend and colleague of Barnes’ and the only soloist in this program not a PO Resident Artist, performed the piece when it debuted in 2018, but she did it more justice this time, with the help of the added cello layer. The flowery scenery—one of the movements is called “Water Your Flowers” accompanied by cello and piano—set the mood in decidedly feminine tropes. Lush purple and pink violets entwining Hawkins’ body and her tumbling headdress moved the work into an otherworldly, mythic realm. Stage director Chip Miller, who usually directs theater (this is his second opera) made sure African Violets went first on the program.
The strongest narrative pieces were sandwiched in the middle. First came Geter’s The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with the Police, performed by the Resonance Ensemble in 2019. Like Jasmine Barnes, Geter wrote both music and words. Geter’s four-part piece, beginning in C major and ending in C minor, was boldly narrated by shape-shifting actress Ithica Tell. It featured some haunting chorale singing. The final movement, “Get Home Safely,” with mezzo-soprano Jasmine Johnson in the mother’s role, draped in white flowers, is clearly moving.
Geter did not program his own piece, he says–PO staff and singers wanted it included. Reflecting on his composition now, he noted “the talk” warning is “not enough” with ongoing traffic-stop murders such as Duante Wright’s. “If one person gets killed, it’s one too many,” he said at a post-opera Zoom session.
The Talk was followed by Night Trip, which portrays a gripping gas-station stop when a Black family travels through Jim Crow America. Carlos Simon composed the 20-minute chamber opera with Sandra Seaton’s libretto. Opening at the Kennedy Center in 2020, Night Trip is stitched from big-band music, jazz, military tunes, gospel and Chicago blues. “I’m not beholden to one style,” Simon said in a pre-opera Zoom. “I wanted to tap into the emotions of fear and uncertainty as well as the idea of home.” The girl, Conchetta, rides in the car’s back seat while her uncles (performed by tenor David Morgans Sanchez and bass-baritone Edwin Jhamal Davis) drive and navigate in the front. They are going from Chicago to Tennessee at night, the safest time for Black travelers in terrifying pre-civil rights years.
I can’t say enough about mezzo Jasmine Johnson’s spot-on portrayal of the 16-year-old Conchetta, impeccable and naive in a pink dress, saddle shoes and pressed hair, exuberantly anticipating seeing her family down South. “I want the fresh air, the chickens, the grass around my waist!” she sings with a charming freshness, giggling sometimes, turning demanding at other moments: “Take me home!”
Her uncles convey the fear and uncertainty that composer Simon sought to communicate, especially when refused use of a restroom by the red-neck gas station attendant, and later when stopped by a policeman. The uncles had fought in World War II on Omaha Beach, as did the cop, but the fear during the encounter is what surfaces and prevails. The white guys–played by the only ones of the evening, minus a couple in the chorus–were over-the-top menacing and disgustingly slobbish. Certainly today, red-hatted MAGA Trumpers have inherited that look, but these Night Trip roles seemed like predictable caricatures–my one criticism of the evening.
The world is a dangerous place, this piece says, which plays out with Conchetta (Johnson) centerstage, lit by flashing lights so we don’t see too much, though we deduce the horror as the unsavory gas station man taunts her. When it’s over, she sings, “Now I know,” traveling from girl to woman in the final aria.
Two Black Churches, composed by Shawn Okpebholo, who combines gospel and contemporary art-song styles, is about the hate crimes perpetrated against two Southern churches: the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were killed in 1963; and a half-century later in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, when the ongoing reality of racism lifted its ugly head again at Mother Emanuel AME Church, where a shooter killed nine parishioners. “The world has gotten a little better, but not much,” Okpebholo said in a pre-opera interview. The music resonates with gospel tunes and hymns, including “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus”–which, in 2015, parishioners sang after the shooting.
Dudley Randall‘s poem provides words for the 2020 opera’s first movement, “Ballad of Birmingham,” where a little girl asks her mom if she can go downtown. Her mother says no, but you can go to church, and she is one of the four girls killed in that “sacred place.” Baritone Michael Parham nails this piece with dignity and poeticism, as he does “The Rain,” the opera’s second part about the Charleston murders. Marcus Amaker, Charleston’s poet laureate, writes:
And we are still trying not to
taste the salt
of our surrounding blues
or face the rising tide of black pain
These words come from Amaker’s poem about the murders in South Carolina’s low country, where the rain is a metaphor for tears. The music contains a recurring nine-chord harmonic progression, and at the end, nine separate chords for each of the murdered parishioners, are struck like church bells. It’s one of Okpebholo’s gorgeous genius touches.
Though much pain permeates this music, there is joy to celebrate, and I found little to criticize and almost everything to praise. You can find your way into these 75 minutes, whichever your race or experience. Traditional European operas are mostly white, and people of color have to access those. Good art is good art.