“If one denies ones past, ones future is in some way impaired
because your past informs your sense of the future. If you deny your roots,
you lose a sense of your own identity. If one feels punished not by what
they do but because of who they are …, there is a sense of disconnect. … Our
past will always enrich who we are. … [I]t is a universal
Ms. Levine made these comments as the stage director and creative consultant to Opera Omaha’s production of Anthony Davis’s Wakonda’s Dream (2007). They nonetheless apply to the entire body of works featured in this year’s John Duffy Composers Institute exhibit.
Staging history gives audiences an integrative experience. They not only see their individual lives reflected in the lives of the characters on stage, an experience that all drama with fully round characters provides, but they also remember and celebrate or mourn their collective past. Beyond that, composers and librettists of opera and musical theater, when taking on historical subjects add to history a sonic dimension that enhances the experience far beyond the reach of text by itself.
The exhibit surveys the plots drawn from American history that have been used by composers since 1947. It includes only plots inspired by real people or events, rather than those which may be set generally in a historical place. What it reveals is a remarkable consistency in the kinds of plots from particular time periods composers choose to develop. Plots drawn from the 16th through 18th centuries show the mettle of individuals thrust into the wild and often hostile environments of the New World. Composers setting historical subjects from the 19th century often choose stories of oppression and liberation. Such stories show the courage exhibited by oppressed women and enslaved and colonized peoples throughout the Americas. Politics and political figures have become almost uniformly the subjects composers choose from 20th- and 21st-century history. A very few composers, however, set historical figures free in an unbound universe of ghosts and dreams.
Both America and opera celebrate 400th anniversaries this year. Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the world’s first dramatically viable opera, was composed in 1607, the same year that England’s first viable colony was established at Jamestown, Virginia. Drawing them together in this exhibit will also, we hope, provide an integrative experience.
Researched and presented by Ms. Laura Y. Brown and Dr.
Jay E. Moore,