Scandinavia 2015: Danish National Symphony Orchestra at the Koncerthuset
"Don Giovanni" at the Metropolitan Opera

"Independence Eve": An Opera in Progress About Race Relations in America

by Steven Pisano

Brandon Snook and Jorell WilliamsIndependence Eve is a three-scene chamber opera by Sidney Marquez Boquiren currently under development by American Opera Projects that explores different viewpoints on black-white relations in America. On Tuesday, February 5, the work-in-progress was presented at The Harlem School of the Arts in a concert version with tenor Brandon Snook and baritone Jorell Williams, accompanied by pianist Mila Henry.

The three scenes together span a century of American life, covering the past, the present, and the future. In the first scene, "Stop and Frisk," two present-day stockbrokers in their late 20s meet for a bag lunch. Sean tells Joe he is suing the city because he was stopped and frisked by some cops. The experience has had a profound affect on Sean who, though he is black, grew up in an affluent town, went to an Ivy League school, and has a good job on Wall Street. The resulting tension makes each man reassess their friendship.  (A video can be viewed here.)

The second scene, "Benched," takes place in the year 2063. The characters here are Max and Phillip, two 10-year-old baseball players. A lot has changed in the half-century since the first scene, such as the fact that whites are now the minority in America. 

Jorell Williams

The final scene, "Seventh Inning Stretch," takes place in 1963. Louis is a hotel porter, and Sam is a policeman, both in their late 40s. Louis is listening to a baseball game on his portable transistor radio. Sam overhears the game and stops to chat about the score. The conversation seems friendly on the surface until suddenly the policeman explodes, expressing his frustration with the way the civil rights movement is changing the country.

Boquiren's atmospheric music successfully undergirds the interplay between the characters in each scene. Daniel Neer's libretto is particularly effective in "Stop and Frisk" and "Seventh Inning Stretch," though the exposition in "Benched" feels more formulaic, as most of it relies simply on swapping black and white positions in the culture without exploring the nuances of such a reversal.

Both singers gave engrossing performances, not only their singing but completely transforming themselves into each of the three characters they play. Snook's voice is more typically Broadway than operatic, while Williams' smooth voice could be either bright or somber. 

The opera world has dealt occasionally with the issue of racism in operas such as Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Turandot, or, more recently, John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met. But, credit Boquiren and Neer for taking on race as the actual subject of their work. 

(All photos by Steven Pisano. More pics here.)

Librettist Daniel Neer and composer Sidney Marquez Boquiren at a post-performance Q&A.