WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED to Tackle Racism, Identity and More at Opera Philadelphia This Fall
September marks the launch of O17, the inaugural edition of Opera Philadelphia's game-changing new annual season-opening festival, and We Shall Not Be Moved (Sep 16-24) is one of three world premieres with which the company looks forward to baptizing the festival by fire.
A co-commission and co-production with Harlem's Apollo Theater and London's Hackney Empire, this powerfully poetic interdisciplinary new chamber opera draws on the collective talents of Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and peerless director, choreographer, and dramaturge Bill T. Jones.
By staying true to its Philadelphia roots while addressing issues only too pertinent to the wider world beyond, We Shall Not Be Moved underscores Opera Philadelphia's commitment to providing extraordinary artists with opportunities to create their most imaginative and inspired work, and serves as a reminder that the company is, as Opera News observes, "one of the leading instigators of new work in the country."
In a production that combines spoken word, contemporary dance, video projection, and classical, R&B and jazz singing with a brooding, often joyful score, the creative team's original story depicts five North Philadelphia teens on the run. Comprising a 15-year-old African-American girl and her self-selected "family" of four brothers - a black-identifiEd White boy and three African-Americans, one of whom is transgender - their confrontation with a local police officer - herself a woman of color - raises timely questions of national identity (what is an American and what is America?), gender identity, the insidious nature of racism, police presence in minority neighborhoods and the violence that sometimes ensues, and the failure for some of the education system. Ultimately the work hinges on the notion of personal responsibility.
We Shall Not Be Moved grapples with its controversial themes through the tight lens of a single story: that of the five teenage runaways who style themselves the "Family Stand." They seek refuge in a condemned house on the site of North Philadelphia's former MOVE compound. Confronted there by Glenda, a Hispanic police officer, they draw comfort and even a degree of inspiration from the ghosts who haunt their new home, and come to consider their squatting not merely as self-preservation, but as an act of resistance.
Part of the opera's power lies in its insistence on nuance, and refusal to provide easy answers. Thus the viewpoints represented include not only those of 15-year-old Un/Sung, the self-appointed "Harriet Tubman" of the teenage group, and of the four older boys she takes under her wing, but also of Glenda, who joined the police force as her own way out of the disenfranchised underclass. Jones elaborates:
"We really are trying to make characters that have specific locations and psyches, and we want to show those characters capable of evolving over time. Un/Sung and Glenda are both from inner-city neighborhoods, but they've chosen different families. Glenda has gone for the route of law and order. She believes in civilization, that there can be a right way and a wrong way, and she's been able in some ways to transcend what she thinks is her identity as a Latina in a racist society. When we first meet her, she is not nearly as conflicted as she should be about her role in the establishment order."
Glenda's confrontation with the teens rises from the radioactive ashes of one of the darkest hours in the history of the City of Brotherly Love. On May 13, 1985, now more than three decades ago, Philadelphia became "The City That Bombed Itself" when local police concluded a standoff with the radical MOVE group by dropping explosives onto the organization's row-house headquarters, starting a fire that city officials then allowed to burn. The only police aerial bombing on U.S. soil to date, this unconscionable attack killed eleven African-American MOVE members, five of whom were children, and wiped out an entire residential neighborhood, leaving more than 250 people homeless.
Librettist, arts activist, and spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a recently-named Global TED Fellow and an inaugural recipient of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship, and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, explains:
"This opera is not about the MOVE organization, but it is set in the same city some 30-odd years later. And the parents of the young people we're focused on most likely lived in Philadelphia during that time. So, in the same way that we all inherit the legacy of systemic pathologies in our country, the main characters - including the police officer who serves as both antagonist and protagonist - are also part of that legacy, and they mine the specific history of the MOVE organization and the MOVE bombing as a foundational point. We focus on how the legacy of the MOVE ideologies and of this extrajudicial violence shows up today all over the country - and acutely in the city of Philadelphia."
Choreographer, director, and dramaturge Bill T. Jones - "arguably the most written-about figure in the dance world of the last quarter century, ... [and] inarguably the most broadly laureled, with a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor and Tony Awards and a Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship and, without hyperbole, scores more" (New York Times) - adds:
"This is not a polemical work. There's a lot of polemics on the stage, but ultimately what it comes down to is a very human confrontation. Who's right, and who's wrong? There are nuances and gradations of culpability that can only be resolved in somebody taking responsibility and saying, 'I'm sorry for the part I played in this.' I hope that this opera is a useful part of the discussion that we're trying to have in our country right now, that happens in the head and in the heart."
In place of easy answers, the opera posits difficult questions. The OGs - original ghosts of the dead MOVE children - ask:
"For whom America the beautiful?
Spacious skies merely mock the blackbird with crippled wing
We slice the blackbird's throat and ask her why she does not sing?"
Likewise, after Un/Sung admits: "It is true we are not innocent, and also true that we are victims. Me and my brothers want to be in a place where more than one kinda thing can be true," she wonders, "Is that not America too?" The teenager is not alone in seeing her situation as symptomatic of a national problem. An unseen presenter on Philadelphia's WLAB radio reports: "What's at stake here is America itself," and asks: "What do the public schools in our largest cities tell us about the future we're making? Who's invited to participate?" For Glenda, who conflates morality with power, the most important question is the one she poses: "The one with the gun has the moral high ground, no?"
Besides representing a multiplicity of viewpoints, We Shall Not Be Moved is comparably nuanced in its consideration of the black body, which is a central theme. Of the five teens, John Mack has perhaps the healthiest perception of his body, experiencing it as a source of wonder: "This body is a miracle and I'm living in it." By contrast, John Henry's is a source of pride:
"This is my body
My ancestors paid for it
All the ladies pray that they get to lay with it
North Philly slayer player really don't play with it"
Both Un/Sung and John Little, the sole white member of the "family," consider their bodies in terms of racial politics. Un/Sung asks: "America, what's so wrong you got laws against THIS body?," while John Little believes that it is his willingness to "die for someone born of another race / Put my body on the line" that defines him as "a true ally." The question is complicated still further by the experience of trans boy John Blue, who confesses: "This is my body and I'm not sure how to carry it / My body betrays me." When a fast-fading John Henry insists "My black life is more than matter," his words do more than evoke the contemporary resistance movement. As Joseph says:
"This matter of black life is very often framed in terms of rage or grief or loss, and part of the resonance of the line is that black life should be celebrated beyond the scope of loss. Black joy matters. Black love matters. [John Henry] is thinking about his own mortality, about the material loss of his life, but also reflecting on the full resonance and capacity of black life, beyond the loss of the body."
To help realize the subtle shadings of this complex vision, Joseph collaborated with Emmy-nominated composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, whom the New York Times considers "about as omnivorous as a contemporary artist gets." In creating the opera's distinctive sound world, which blends classical music with funk, hip-hop, and jazz, Roumain's starting point was the libretto. He explains:
"Marc's words always have music in them already - I really can't explain it any other way, other than to say that, as a composer, I try not to get in the way of the music that's already there. I simply kind of draw it out, and think of those moments where we can tell a story. I think the music has found a way to take those words and those ideas, and create something that is funky and soulful and at times really beautiful and simple. So there's operatic singing, and there's spoken word, and there's hip-hop singing and dance, and there's folk singing. There's really this notion of hybridity in a very personal and a very relevant way."
Joseph adds: "If anyone comes in expecting Verdi or Puccini, they're going to be disappointed, because that's not what we're making. There's a stylistic innovation, a swagger, a jazz-blues-based intellect that comes forward here, so we're not being held just to the standards of the classic, storied practitioners of the operatic form, we're also being held to the standards of practitioners of hip-hop, of jazz, of blues - and we're being charged with making something new."
Joseph has just been named one of the "most influential people in dance today" by Dance magazine, and his libretto also provided many dance cues; the MOVE ghosts express themselves primarily by means of kasé, the move associated with spirit possession in Afro-Haitian Vodou rites. Jones says:
"Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a spoken word artist, it's true, an impresario, but he's also a choreographer. I've never been faced with a libretto that had so many specific references to dance. I sometimes say he's written a choreo-poem! It is an interesting opportunity for me to balance my interests - text, music, movement - but also to try to keep those vocabularies in balance, to keep them in a dynamic relationship."
In collaboration with hip-hop and breakdance specialist Raphael Xavier, a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, Jones choreographed the contemporary movement and dance that - together with video projection and spoken word - help round out the production he describes as "ambitiously interdisciplinary."
Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere production of We Shall Not Be Moved in the Wilma Theater, where spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead makes her company debut as Un/Sung, and Kirstin Chávez brings her "glorious voice" (Opera News) to the role of Glenda. Marian Anderson Vocal Award-winner John Holiday, described as an "impressive young countertenor" with a "bright, virile voice" (New York Times), creates the role of John Blue, with Aubrey Allicock, whose "bass-baritone has a distinctively glossy, warm color, with increasingly impressive freedom and fullness at the top of its range" (Opera News),as John Henry; tenor Daniel Shirley, whose "most consistently affecting vocalism" impressed Opera News, as John Little; and award-winning baritone Adam Richardson as John Mack. Internationally acclaimed opera and orchestra conductor Viswa Subbaraman will conduct. After the Philadelphia premiere, We Shall Not Be Moved will immediately travel to The Apollo Theater for its first New York performances, before making its European premiere at the Hackney Empire in October.
We Shall Not Be Moved represents the most recent of the "ambitious, accomplished and dramatically direct" (New York Times)" new works yielded by Opera Philadelphia's innovative American Repertoire Program. Founded in 2011 with a commitment to producing a recent American work in each of ten consecutive seasons, this was established to foster a new generation of homegrown opera composers to tell authentically American stories. As a result, besides mounting East Coast premieres of such important contemporary works as Cold Mountain, A Coffin in Egypt, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Silent Night, in recent seasons the company has also presented its first three world premieres in four decades. These are Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD, an Opera Philadelphia commission that went on to launch new partnerships with Harlem's Apollo Theater andLondon's Hackney Empire; ANDY: A Popera, an opera-cabaret hybrid inspired by Andy Warhol; andBreaking the Waves, a 2017 International Opera Award finalist that not only won the Music Critics' Association of North America's inaugural "Best New Opera" award, but is already reputed to be "among the finest operas of the new century" (New York Times). In addition to We Shall Not Be Moved, the upcoming season-launching O17 festival (Sep 14-25) features two further world premieres:Elizabeth Cree, a chamber opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, in collaboration with the Hackney Empire, and The Wake World, a musical journey through the art collections of Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation from composer-in-residence David Hertzberg.
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. Described as "the very model of a modern opera company" by the Washington Post, Opera Philadelphia was the only American finalist for the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company. The company is charting a bold new path to September 2017, when Opera Philadelphia will open its 2017-18 season with an immersive, 12-day festival featuring seven operatic happenings in six venues throughout the city. The first festival, "O17," will feature three world premieres and a Philadelphia premiere, plus the exclusive East Coast appearance of Barrie Kosky's groundbreaking production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and a recital by superstar soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Opera Philadelphia will continue to present a spring season each year, including two additional productions in February and April, making it the only U.S. opera company producing an annual opera season that begins with a dynamic festival. For more information, visit operaphila.org.
IF YOU GO:
We Shall Not Be Moved
Music by Daniel Bernard Roumain
Libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Director, choreographer and dramaturge: Bill T. Jones
World Premiere: Sep 16, 17, 18, 21, 23 & 24, at 8:00 p.m. | The Wilma Theater
New York Premiere: October 6 & 7, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. | The Apollo Theater
European Premiere: October 13, 14, 15, 18M, 20, 21, 2017 | Hackney Empire
Performed in English with English supertitles
Un/Sung: Lauren Whitehead*
Glenda: Kirstin Chávez
John Blue: John Holiday*
John Little: Daniel Shirley*
John Mack: Adam Richardson*
John Henry: Aubrey Allicock*
OGs: Michael Bishop*, Duane Lee Holland, Jr.*, Tendayi Kuumba*, Caci Cole Pritchett*
Conductor: Viswa Subbaraman*
Set design: Matt Saunders*
Costume design: Liz Prince
Lighting design: Robert Wierzel*
Projection design: Jorge Cousineau
Sound design: Robert Kaplowitz*
Assistant director: Seth Hoff
Assistant choreographer: Raphael Xavier*
*Opera Philadelphia debut
Pictured: Daniel Bernard Roumain, Bill T. Jones, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph