The Civil War may have ended more than 150 years ago, yet in many ways our country has never fully recovered. The recent protests over removing Confederate statues from public locations have shown just how shallow - and how hurting - the wounds from that episode in our history still are. To be sure, we've come a long way since the 1860s, but we are still a nation divided. Not Blue and Gray any longer, but Blue and Red.
If opera is generally thought to be drama writ large, then the Civil War could be considered the greatest opera in American history, with brother killing brother hand-to-hand, and thousands of soldiers dying in a single day. So it's interesting that the young composer Matthew Aucoin, in his 2015 opera Crossing, explores a more intimate side of the war through Walt Whitman's diary, in which he writes about volunteering as a wartime nurse tending to wounded Union soldiers. But while the setting is small, the themes in Aucoin's opera are timeless--love, faith, betrayal, life, death, transcendence.
Aucoin, 27, composes music of a very high caliber, writes his own literate librettos, and is one of the most respected young conductor/composers in the country. (Crossing, Aucoin's third opera, was written when he was only 25.) First performed at American Repertory Theater in Boston (Aucoin studied poetry at Harvard), Crossing is having its New York premiere this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the annual Next Wave Festival.
Whitman was in his early 40s during the Civil War, having published his great opus Leaves of Grass a decade earlier. As such, Aucoin presents Whitman as a truth-teller whom the mostly younger soldiers look to for wisdom as well as for succor. One patient, a Confederate soldier named John Wormley, claims to be from the Union so he can receive quality medical treatment. Though in Whitman's diary he is mentioned only in passing, Aucoin inflates Wormley's role to play off of Whitman in a much larger way.
Rod Gilfry sings Walt Whitman with a soft-spoken authority, though he looks more like a country music star than the limpid-eyed poet. Alexander Lewis plays John Wormley with a fiery and brash defiance, who accuses Whitman of working in the hospital just to be near young men, then dies tenderly in Whitman's arms. (Wordsworth's sexuality has long been debated by literary historians, though no actual sexual relationship with a man has ever been documented.)
Other soloists, though much less prominent, include Davone Tines as the runaway slave/Union soldier Freddie Stowers, and Jennifer Zetlan, who plays the Messenger, arriving with the good news that the war has ended. (The only other woman in the cast is Christina Dooling, who dances in a dream sequence.) The balance of the ensemble are not given much to do acting-wise, but they sing the lush harmonies with a commanding unity.
Performances continue at the Howard Gilman Opera House through Sunday, October 8; tickets can be purchased here. If you are interested in contemporary opera, or just want to say you were there to hear this brilliant composer's work when he is writing masterpieces a decade from now, by all means go.
More photographs can be found here.