At several points during composer Kirke Mechem’s 20-year struggle to put the story of John Brown on the opera stage, he must have despaired of its chances of ever becoming a reality.
But it is very real, and Saturday’s world premiere of “John Brown” by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City was the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of.
With unabashedly lush solo and choral writing, a shimmering orchestral backdrop and a raw-nerved story of continued relevance, this opera is a natural almost from start to finish.
What it has going for it, for starters, is Mechem’s libretto drawn largely from the profound and often movingly poetic writings of John Brown and his ex-slave abolitionist friend Frederick Douglass.
(“Those who want freedom without struggle, want crops without plowing,” Douglass sings, paraphrasing an actual speech. With texts like that, who needs a librettist?)
Mechem makes no secret of his admiration for a historical figure who has at times been regarded as a treasonous, cold-blooded murderer. The first words that Brown utters in the opera are not his but Jesus’: “Think not that I come to send peace on earth. Not peace but a sword.”
His words are set off by a warm cushion of string sound throughout the opera, in much the same way that Bach gave Jesus’ words a string “halo” in his Passion settings. (Coincidentally or not, the “Once To Every Man and Nation” hymn sung in Act 2 and heard again in the finale contains the melodic contour of the opening of the “St. Matthew Passion.”)
Those who still find Brown a violent, controversial historical figure might find this near-deification jarring, but it is consistent with Mechem’s Brown: He is a loving, caring man, shown in sympathetic situations with family and friends and wanting the best for America regardless of the cost.
Mechem’s musical language is approachable yet complex, and only occasionally prolix or overly sentimental. The opera’s chief strength is the composer’s skill for marrying musical and dramaturgical design. The Act 2 scene at Emerson’s house builds tension using hymn verses as structural principle, with conversation interspersed — its hymnal humdrum spiced by unexpected harmonic turns and orchestral color.
Mechem also shows skill in mitigating heavier passages of historic talk with emotional moments. By the end of Act 1 we’re feeling a bit overloaded with narrative, and the love-duet between Oliver Brown and his fiancée that opens Act 2 comes as a welcome moment of human sentiment.
Likewise the effective, simply-written duet between Brown and the dying Oliver in Act 3 is a tender if bitter moment in a whirlwind of violence.
Several of the solo songs were part of an earlier version of the opera that was never performed, and they remain some of the strongest bits, in particular Frederick Douglass’ melancholy “The Songs of the Slave are the Sorrows of His Heart.”
Mechem’s special skill in choral writing stood out throughout, in numbers ranging from the joyous (“I’m Free!”) to the rhythmically nervous and dynamic (“Stoke the Fire!”).
Any opera is historical fiction by its very nature, and indeed Brown’s heroism is enhanced by the bronzed-voice mastery of baritone James Maddalena. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in American opera who could more powerfully convey both the sympathy and the hard-headedness of Mechem’s Brown. His was one of the few voices in the cast that could always project over the busy orchestration.
Another was that of baritone Donnie Ray Albert, who inhabited the role of Douglass with inner smolder and tinges of humor where necessary, his robust voice like a cannon firing ingots of gold.
The rest of the cast was mostly strong, including pleasant-voiced Patrick Miller as Oliver Brown, fierce soprano Jennifer Aylmer as Martha Barber and the surprise standout of Vanessa Thomas in the small role of Daniel the slave’s wife.
Kristine McIntyre’s stage direction was deft and natural, to the point that you didn't think much about “direction,” even in the crowd scenes. And except for intonation issues in the low strings, the Kansas City Symphony under Ward Holmquist played beautifully in the pit.
Mary Traylor’s costumes showed attention to an 1850s period look. R. Keith Brumley’s multi-use set design featured a wood-plank floor topped by an upstage “shelf” that ran the width of the stage, serving variously as hill or boardwalk or abstracted elevation.
The huts and cabins were a tad ungainly, and the Emerson interior cartoonish, but the pioneer "moment" of communal barn-raising was effective.
Some of Mechem’s numbers trailed on a bit long, like the love-duet. But “John Brown” is an opera that I suspect will take on a life of its own, particularly at a time when Americans are pondering the question of when violence is justified to avert greater violence. (When are we ever not pondering that question?)
It’s the sort of opera that could easily become an iconic American classic, worthy to stand beside accessible American favorites by Carlisle Floyd or Robert Ward but possessing its own unique visceral energy.
Wes Blomster, "John Brown lives again in Kansas City." Opera Today, May 12, 2008
(photo by Douglas Hamer, Lyric Opera of Kansas City)
Like the nursery rhymes of childhood, Dred Scott, Harper’s Ferry and John Brown are words that resonate only indistinctly in the minds of today’s elders; an ahistorical younger generation knows them not at all. Thus the astonishment that prevailed in the Lyric’s aged venue at the contemporary relevance — indeed, the urgency — of the story of the man determined to end slavery in this country — even by force, if necessary.
Although decades in the making Mechem’s monumental score — it runs slightly over three hours, less two intermissions — comes to the stage as racism rumbles beneath the surface of a major political campaign. Brown, if not totally a’mouldered, would turn nervously in its grave at the sight of current events.
Mechem, author of the Brown libretto as well, has done his homework in his use of the archives in what is in many ways a documentary drama. Furthermore, for Mechem Brown is a family matter, for his historian father once attempted to tailor this story for the opera stage. Much to his credit, the younger Mechem, born in 1925, has resurrected Brown in all his ambiguity. At the very center of his opera is the confrontation between Brown and Frederick Douglass, the eloquent black leader who insisted upon abolition by legal and peaceful means. Brown, on the other hand, killed no one, but approved the murder of six men to achieve his goal. Thus questions of violence and terrorism, ghosts that lingers from the years of opposition to the Vietnam war, add weight — and darkness — to Mechem’s tale.
The Lyric could hardly have done better than casting James Maddalena and veteran black baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Brown and Douglass. Maddalena, on stage almost without interruption, makes of Brown a towering and commanding figure, and although Mechem portrays him positively in sometimes mesmerizing music, he never evades the complex issues encountered in Brown’s position. Albert makes Douglass, a man to whom ambiguity was alien, a veritable Rock of Gibraltar in the middle of this story. Indeed, this role must be a major triumph in Albert’s long and distinguished career.
Mechem adds a person dimension to Brown’s story with a sub-plot involving his family and the hesitation of those next to him to support his plans for the raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, the attempt to free slaves that failed and resulted in his arrest and execution. Son Oliver Brown, movingly sung by tenor Patrick Miller, and daughter-in-law Martha, sensitively played by soprano Jennifer Aylmer, underscore the human toll taken by history.
Mechem’s lush score abounds in moments of richness, such as the love duet between Oliver and Martha that opens Act Two, when Vanessa Thomas steps forth from the wings to read a letter by a young slave’s wife and when Oliver dies in his father’s arms. The score is often marvelous both in sound and emotion, yet it is always measured. It is tonal and lyric throughout, but never trite, and a major strength lies in Mechem’s experienced hand as a choral composer. In many especially moving moments he concludes a crucial scene with a chorus that never stands by itself, but is always an integral continuation of what has gone before. The choruses “I’m Free” and “Stoke the Fire” are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote.
Mechem makes no secret of the deep religious convictions that motivate Brown, who sees himself doing God’s work in fighting slavery. However, he treats this aspect of his hero’s character with reserve, never allowing him to seem a zealot — despite many Biblical references and the inclusion of hymn tunes in his score. There are points in the opera at which Mechem hauntingly recalls Bach’s passions in his portrayal of Brown’s agony. Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist conducted members of the Kansas City Symphony to fine effect.
It is clear that John Brown, a commission that celebrates the Lyric’s 50th anniversary, should move on to other stages. Before it does so, however, revision is needed. The opera now runs over three hours; and, word from within was that considerable cuts had already been made.
The first act is totally absorbing in its dramatic force. The final act, on the other hand, wanders and lacks focus. It could end at a number of places, and the contribution of the post-scripted Apotheosis to the score is questionable. One knows by then what Brown’s fate is to be, and to have him swing visibly above the stage on the hangman’s rope is — well — overkill and even raises questions of taste.
The Lyric, set to move into a new performing arts center next year, has outdone itself in staging John Brown in its current outdated home. Book — and flag-burning — to mention only two special effects — are staged credibly. One does not often seek a message in opera, but there is one here and it is of particular urgency today. “One of the uncomfortable truths this opera asks us to confront,” writes director Kristine McIntyre in comments in the program, “is that most people, even when confronted with a great wrong, are simply afraid to stand up and be counted. We don’t want to be stirred out of our complacency and we aren’t ready to have our preconceptions challenged.”