The war that would not end: Race relations take the opera stage

and”Itandrsquos almost like a photojournalist approach to opera,and” says composer Philip Glass, and”where the material is changing while youandrsquore writing it.and”
The opera in question is about an event from 1865. At least, thatandrsquos how it started out. Its creators then thoroughly rewrote it, adding a whole new second act set in 1965 and a 2015 epilogue. Even so, Glass says, and”I might have to revise it again.and”
and”Appomattox,and” by Glass and playwright Christopher Hampton, is currently having its first performances at the Washington National Opera. An opera with the same title, by the same artists, opened at the San Francisco Opera in 2007. But whatandrsquos being staged here is so different — and”I wrote again the same amount of music,and” Glass said last week in an interview at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — that the company is billing it as a world premiere.
The reason for all the volatility: The real subject of and”Appomattoxand” is civil rights — the quest for racial equality in America. And, as current events keep reminding us, we have a ways to go.
and”Itandrsquos such fascinating material, and so centrally important at the moment, that you keep thinking about it. Itandrsquos not like a piece of art that you finish and there it is,and” says Hampton, the playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter of and”Dangerous Liaisons,and” among many other works.
and”The argument of the piece,and” Glass says, and”is that the war never ended.and”
Many opera librettos have been adapted from plays. and”Appomattoxand” is the only libretto Iandrsquom aware of that has been adapted into a play. After the operaandrsquos San Francisco premiere, Hampton says, he and Glass and”felt it was slightly unfinished,and” and he ended up using the material to write a play, also called and”Appomattox,and” which was presented at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2012 as part of a festival of his work.
A British citizen born in the Azores, Hampton knew nothing about the Civil War when Glass approached him about the San Francisco commission — and”ideal,and” Glass says, to have an outsiderandrsquos perspective — but he rapidly became something of an expert. Glassandrsquo original interest in the material, Hampton says, was and”the fact that Lee and Grant and Lincoln behaved so honorably (at Appomattox) and the truce was so carefully worked out and fair. He thought that this was an extraordinary contrast to what happens in this century.and” But Hampton realized that things didnandrsquot end there.
and”I thought, andlsquoI donandrsquot want to write something that gives the impression that they sign these pieces of paper and everything is OKandrsquo,and” he says. and”So I noodged it into the 20th century.and” Even in the San Francisco version of the opera, thereandrsquos a flash-forward scene in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appears.
That wasnandrsquot enough, though. Noticing that there was almost exactly a century between Lincolnandrsquos second inaugural (at which, in the opera, Frederick Douglass asks Lincoln to grant black citizens the right to vote) and the start of the Selma marches in Alabama, also aimed at getting the vote, Hampton wrote a new second act set in 1965, in which King asks President Lyndon B. Johnson the same question.
and”I went to see [the play],and” Glass says, and”and I said, andlsquoChristopher, this is great. I canandrsquot wait to do a revision [of the opera]andrsquo.and”
Meanwhile, Francesca Zambello, who had just been appointed artistic aiser to the Washington National Opera (two years before assuming her current position as artistic director), approached Glass about the idea of doing and”Appomattoxand” at the WNO, which had never staged an opera by Glass. and”How could the worldandrsquos most-performed living composer not have something at the Washington National Opera?and” Zambello asks. On discovering that the creators were eager to rewrite it, she had the company co-commission the new version.
Thus, the new play was readapted into yet another opera libretto, which followed Hamptonandrsquos revisions closely — except, Glass says, and”itandrsquos not four hours long.and”
and”Now I truly question if we should have changed the title,and” Zambello said earlier this month in a conversation at the Kennedy Center. and”Itandrsquos like, andlsquoCivil War to Civil Rights.andrsquo [The title] andlsquoAppomattoxandrsquo doesnandrsquot say that. It talks about a seminal moment where everything, everybody thought, got fixed, but actually everything went wrong.
and”Appomattox as a symbol is correct, but I want the audience [to] understand that itandrsquos also very contemporary. The moment I tell people Martin Luther King is in this opera, they go, andlsquoOh, really?andrsquoand”
Both Hampton and Glass seized on the hunt for historical facts and nuggets with a kind of glee. One impetus for the Selma marches was the killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by a trooper named James Bonard Fowler.
and”As I was beginning to think about this and work on this in 2010, [Fowler] was [jailed],and” Hampton. Fowler — who served only five months for the killing — now appears in the operaandrsquos epilogue, set in 2015, in an invented dialogue with Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted in 2005 in the 1964 killings of three civil rights activists.
Most of the operaandrsquos dialogue is based on historical fact, but because the King estate doesnandrsquot allow the replication of the texts of his speeches, Hampton had to base the operatic King words on his other writings. and”It was kind of fun to write a Martin Luther King speech,and” he says. (The parallels between the acts in the opera are reinforced by the fact that singers take double roles: Douglass and King are sung by Soloman Howard Lincoln and LBJ, by Tom Fox and Robert E. Lee and Killen, by David Pittsinger, who has to transform himself from gentleman to bigot in the process.)
Glass became equally enthusiastic about verisimilitude. This past August, he read that Amelia Boynton Robinson, one of the organizers of the first Selma march who was beaten by state troopers, had died at age 104. He immediately contacted Hampton and Tazewell Thompson, who is directing the piece for WNO, and said, according to Thompson, and”We should do something for her. We should put her in the opera.and” Robinson is now in the opera.
and”Iandrsquom not the only one whoandrsquos doing this,and” Glass observes. and”People working in the theater today, I think weandrsquore finding some of the most engaging material is stuff in the newspaper. You wouldnandrsquot have said that in the andlsquo50s. Well, you might have said it, but no one would have listened.and”
With and”Appomattox,and” Glass — who at 78 years old has written 27 operas — has been able to tackle both an iconic historic subject and contemporary events. Both have been career-long preoccupations.
and”I think one of the fascinating things about him has been his exploration into history and to great leaders,and” Zambello says of Glassandrsquos operatic oeuvre. and”Obviously Gandhi [in andlsquoSatyagrahaandrsquo], Einstein, Galileo, Disney [andlsquoThe Perfect Americanandrsquo]. These huge symbols of world domination, basically.
and”For him now to write about America — so often heandrsquos explored other countries. But heandrsquos really talking about our problems. And to grow up in the era of civil rights, and change, I know itandrsquos very close to his heart.and”
This isnandrsquot Glassandrsquo first approach to the Civil War: He and the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson created and”The CIVIL WarS: A tree is best measured when it is downand” in the early 1980s. Lincoln also appears in and”The Perfect American,and” while King has a silent but significant part in Act III of and”Satyagraha.and”
and”I didnandrsquot think I was that interested in American history,and” Glass says. and”But I canandrsquot seem to get away from it, either. Now this [opera], really, is a frontal attack with that material. But I would say that for sure this is the great American story.and”
By and”it,and” Glass means less the Civil War than the history of race relations in this country. and”This is our story,and” he says. andding-oath_404766.htm
SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN

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