From the Ruins of Appomattox, a Second Opera
The Dresser has been a fan of the operas by Philip Glass having seen Einstein on the Beach, Hydrogen Jukebox, Satyagraha, and chamber operas like The Photographer and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. On November 14, 2015, she went to Washington National Opera's ponderous premiere production of the remake of Appomattox with music by Glass and libretto by the Portuguese British playwright Christopher Hampton. The production runs for six performances ending with a matinee November 22.
The Dresser walked away from the three-and-half-hour opera with one 25-minute intermission wondering what audience who had not heard Glass and Hampton speak before the curtain lifted took away as the message of this work. According to Hampton, whom Glass chose for his creative partner because he brought no Civil War baggage to the project, suffrage and rage seemed the most potent elements that arose from the end of the American Civil War as represented by the battle of Appomattox Court House, which ultimately resulted in the surrender of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee. To be clear, the issue of suffrage concerned giving the vote to Black men, especially those Black men who had fought for the Union. In the opera, Frederick Douglas was the advocate for Black men's voting rights.
Act I, the first 90 minutes of the opera, is devoted to the Civil War in 1865 and for the most part was true to the original 2007 San Francisco Opera premier of Appomattox. Act II, the remainder of the opera and a replacement for the original Act II, is set 100 years later in 1965 during the administration of Lyndon Johnson and the strife over voting rights. Act I features generals Lee (bass-baritone David Pittsinger) and Ulysses S. Grant (baritone Richard Paul Fink) who exchange courteous battle ground messages over Lee's surrender and President Abraham Lincoln (baritone Tom Fox) as the sacred hero of freed slaves. Douglas (bass Soloman Howard) is a minor character who just barely manages to get into Lincoln's White House to celebrate the end of the Civil War. Other minor characters include the wives of Lee, Grant, and Lincoln.
Relative to the librettist's emphasis on voting rights, the Dresser believes that had Act I focused on Frederick Douglas and his work on universal suffrage, which included women's right to vote (a point questioned briefly in the opera by Mary Todd Lincoln), the two acts would have made a strong cohesive and timely statement for today's political environment. This is not to say that act II works well. Hampton's libretto misses the opportunity to show the complex psychology that motivated the good ole boy southerner LBJ to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress and how his quirky behavior like inviting his attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach into the bathroom when he was "taking a dump" was not a scatological joke on a juvenile level but a power play meant to dominate and humiliate.
Featured in Act II besides LBJ is Martin Luther King, Jr. with more minor appearances by Coretta Scott King, F.B.I director J. Edgar Hover, Alabama Governor George Wallace, Lady Bird Johnson, Edgar Ray Killen (Ku Klux Klan organizer who in 1964 planned and directed the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), and James Fowler (the Alabama policeman who in 1965 shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed black man who was trying to shield his mother from being beaten by police during a civil rights protest). Fifteen singers play 29 characters with fourteen singing two different characters, one appearing in Act I and the other in Act II. Interesting double roles include Tom Fox as Lincoln and LBJ, David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee and Edgar Ray Killen, Soloman Howard as Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Paul Fink as Grant and Nicholas Katzenbach, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird as Mary Todd Lincoln and Lady Bird Johnson, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Elizabeth Keckley (dressmaker-confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln) and Coretta King, and tenor Frederick Ballentine as Black journalist T. Morris Chester (the only Black Civil War correspondent for a major daily newspaper) and John Lewis (voting rights advocate who organized sit-ins in Tennessee, participated in Freedom Rides, helped develop the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was a keynote speaker, along with MLK at the August 1963 March on Washington).
What is best about the opera are the choral numbers. Act I opens with "Tenting Tonight," an invigorating version of a popular song favored by the Union armies during the American Civil War. What is surprising about this Glass opera are these kind of discrete numbers (several are based on American folk tunes) and the occasional aria like the impressive one delivered by Solomon Howard as Martin Luther King early in Act II. Uncomfortably annoying is how boring Glass' signature minimalist repetitions become. Unlike his opera Satyagraha where the pulsing minimalist line injects forward movement and life flow, the background repetitions enervate especially in combination with the recitative delivered by the players in LBJ's oval office. The last minute conductor substitution--Dante Santiago Anzolini replaced an injured Dennis Russell Davies--probably contributed to some of these problems. A number of times, voices were covered by the orchestra as the conductor struggled with balance issues.
The dance that erupts when Lincoln greets freed slaves--here Lincoln looks cartoonish--points out the lack of variety in the scenes. Donald Eastman's stage-filling White House serves as the only set but it works handsomely especially in the scene where ceiling to floor gauzy flags--one Confederate, the other Union-- serve to split Lee's camp from Grant's as they exchange letters about the terms and possibility of Lee's surrender. Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes added period color to the acts as relief to the static nature of director Tazewell Thompson's mise-en-scene.
In Adam Tavel's poem "William Tecumseh Sherman Speaks on the Burning of Old Sheldon Church, South Carolina, 1865," Union general Sherman complains that the journalist missed the real story, which the general said concerned the effort his soldiers getting control of the South. In the opera Appomattox, Black journalist Thomas Morris Chester offers an interesting account about slaves whose prison doors were opened but they refused to leave their cells. In terms of the message the creators of the opera wanted to impart, how did Chester's anecdote advance the story of Black voting rights? In case anyone cares, the Old Sheldon Church originally known as Prince William's Paris Church was burned by the British in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. Today what remains of Old Sheldon Church are the ruins of Sherman's attack.
WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN SPEAKS ON THE BURNING OF OLD SHELDON CHURCH, SOUTH CAROLINA, 1865
Not my goddamn hand lit that bourbon rag
though I'm sure the Tribune splattered
"Tecumseh Burns House of God to Ground"
to make some pennies clang. These dandified
reporters are all the same--days after cannon fire
they whittle pencil tips and scribble
every wisp of rumor in their registers.
Never met one who could load a Colt. One
Boston baron filed his nails like a whore
when I offered my canteen. He missed
the story. The story was my men inching
through chicken-shit gray-coat orchards
to Savannah's coastal breeze. Some mornings
I didn't know my own face shaving, ghost
of father's legal scowl more maculed
than a saddle left in dew and damp
at dawn--lines on top of lines
like a battle map concocted
by schoolhouse generals chortling
as they stub cigars half-smoked.
After Appomattox I heard Sheldon's townsfolk
laid white roses in the cinder
while rebels spat chaw on the stars and stripes
cursing me thief and vandal. Well,
what good is faith if it don't turn the world
against you--ain't that what the Savior said?
Not peace but a sword? You quote the Lord
to show another man his sin. You torch
his mama's ribboned hymnal
when your own house roars to ash.
from Plash & Levitation
copyright © 2015 Adam Tavel
Photos: Scott Suchman (MLK and LBJ), Washington Post (Generals Lee and Grant)