"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Kirke Mechem's JOHN BROWN Opera in 3 acts Premiere, 2008: Review Excerpts

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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….Mechem’s musical language is approachable but complex…spiced by unexpected harmonic turns and orchestral color…. It is an opera that I suspect will take on a life of its own…could easily become an iconic American classic. — Kansas City Star

In the fifty years of Lyric’s history there has never been such a prolonged standing ovation.

Russell Patterson, founder and former general director of Lyric Opera Kansas City

Mechem has resurrected Brown in all his ambiguity. At the very center of his opera is the confrontation between Brown and Frederick Douglass….James Maddalena 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. Donnie Ray Albert makes Douglass, a man to whom ambiguity was alien, a veritable Rock of Gibraltar….This role must be a major triumph in Albert’s long and distinguished career….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….The choruses “I’m free!” and “Stoke the Fire” are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote. Opera Today

A wonderful opera in every respect, and it does no impermissible violence to the historical record ….captures perfectly the conflict and tragedy at the core of the John Brown story…It should stand as a model for anyone attempting to use the past creatively….I was deeply moved.

Stephen B. Oates, author of To Purge This Land With Blood, A Biography of John Brown


This Brown is not a wild-eyed fanatic but a family man of holy rage, pushed to extremes to right one of history’s greatest wrongs…. in a show-stopping walk-on, local soprano Vanessa Thomas turns the tragic story of a slave woman into a pained marvel….the libretto offers the greatest bits of Douglass’s greatest speeches, and the score rises….At moments like this, John Brown clutches music, history and the soul itself…. By the end…Mechem’s score swells into both requiem and celebration, a majesty fit for its subject: the delayed, bloody birth of a truly free America. Afterward, the crowd leapt to its feet and clapped so long and hard that hands grew sore. Pitch.com

We have just seen the premiere of what may well be the great American opera….What is said, what is sung, what happens in Act II, Scene 1 constitutes one of the most powerfully moving scenes in all opera….[Brown’s] hubris, his martyrdom, and his apotheosis bring this character and events from the historical into the pantheon of the great tragic figures in theatre. -- Prof. Theodore Johnson, Kansas University

(Four stars) Mechem’s work is breathtaking, aided by the rich performances of Maddalena and Albert, [who] nearly stopped the production with his rich delivery of this moving work. A&Evibe.com

[Mechem’s] fidelity to the essentials of the abolitionist's gripping story constitutes his opera's greatest strength …. a production worthy of its subject…with a cast headed by two powerful singing actors, baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Frederick Douglass and especially James Maddalena, whose John Brown evolves as a stern, compassionate, ultimately sympathetic figure of much complexity….Audiences have given it standing ovations. Toronto Star

1 comment:

Jimmy Higgins said...

This blog is a worthy follow-up to a splendid book. Glad I found it.

At the blog I post on, Fire on the Mountain, I recently slapped up three consecutive posts on music having to do with John Brown, including one on the opera which has a embedded YouTube video of a choral version of "Dan-u-el" from the opera.

If you have any John Brown-related music you are partial to, please feel free to drop a word or two in the comments section at FotM.