Richie Davis' article on TRUTH

Old Deerfield Productions readies premiere of Sojourner Truth opera
By RICHIE DAVIS
Bulletin Contributing Writer

Friday, February 10, 2012
It began with a dream.

While trying to imagine how she could follow Old Deerfield Productions’ original opera “The Captivation of Eunice Williams” with another success, artistic director Linda McInerney dreamed she was sitting in Northampton’s Academy of Music with composer Paula Kimper. They were watching singer Evelyn Harris, who was onstage, wearing a mid-19th century costume and about to sing.

She’d seen both women earlier that evening in a theater lobby and when she awoke, realized she’d envisioned Harris portraying 19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth in her next collaboration with Kimper.

“Whoa! That’s perfect!” thought McInerney, who felt like she’d been given marching orders by her subconscious.

“Truth” was born that night in the summer of 2009. Now the world premiere of the opera, with Harris in the title role, is set for Feb. 16 through 18 at the Academy of Music.

But the work could as well be called “Trust.”

“It’s a leap of faith because I have no doubt that if this came in a dream, this is what it wanted to be. … I’ve lived as if this is what it wants to be for those 2½ years,” said McInerney, who describes herself as a “53-year-old, middle-aged housewife who’s pretty white.”

Producer-director McInerney set off on that “leap” – or “bushwhacking,” as she describes it – along with Kimper, Harris and award-winning playwright Talaya Delaney, whose Harvard doctorate focused on transforming historical characters into theater scripts.

This was a true collaborative, artistic journey of discovery for these women.

“This has been the largest production I’ve done in my entire life,” McInerney said. There’s a larger cast than the 2004 opera “Captivation,” a more sweeping span of time, a full orchestra … “and, I have to say, bigger ideas, too.”

Along the way, McInerney raised $64,000 with the help of the online fundraising site Kickstarter and by reaching out to private and corporate donors and winning six grants. Right from the get-go, Kickstarter’s pump-priming was supercharged with a video of Harris presenting Sojourner Truth’s powerful 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech to the Ohio Women’s Rights convention.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! … I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?”

Harris, a thin, red-haired woman with penetrating eyes and a deep, soulful voice, is best known for her years in the women’s a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. She has lived in the Pioneer Valley for a dozen years, singing, leading choruses and teaching voice at Northampton Commuton Community Music Center.

She feels comfortable depicting Truth, but says acting doesn’t come easy.

“I know how to be hired to sing, but being paid to act and sing is daunting for me,” said Harris, who lives in Easthampton. She hadn’t done any acting since she was in college. “Sojourner ages in the piece also, so there are a lot of emotions that have to be covered. It’s a lot of work. I rely on my instincts because I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m a singer, I’m 61 years old, so I’ve been doing it a long time. But I’ve never done an opera before, so I want to be as good as I can.”

Then again, Harris makes clear this opera is a folk opera, which Kimper has based on spirituals and other African-American traditions. And she doesn’t let the term “opera” get in the way any more than her liberating character would have.

“I don’t ask those kinds of questions,” Harris says. “I leave it to the creators to make it work. Once you know a medium is out there, it’s for everyone to use. You use what you need to save your own life and you save the rest for the next person.”

Truth was born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree. She escaped slavery, and in the 1840s, while advocating women’s rights and abolition as Sojourner Truth, joined a utopian community in Northampton.

“It feels like me,” Harris said. “It feels like all the other black women I know. When someone says, ‘Oh, wow! This thing’s been written for you!’ I say, ‘I’m just one of the many black woman who could play this part.’”

Harris, like McInerney, says she’d known “just the peripheral things” about Truth, like her role as someone born to slavery who became a pioneering, liberated woman.

As an actress, she says, “You have to be on the whole time and show your growth, your maturity, and be a mom and a fighter, and be an individual. She was all of that. She was born with it and, for her, there were no models and she was definitely making it up as she went along.”

Gathering treasures

The same step-by-step discovery has been true for McInerney, who began by searching for the 40 cast members and simultaneously researching the life of Truth. She’d buy three copies of whatever biographies she could find, including children’s books, and send them to composer Kimper and librettist Delaney. They would explore and discuss the materials at weekly meetings, developing a script that began with Truth as a 20-year-old slave near New Paltz, N.Y.

“We spent a solid eight months just reading and talking every week,” said McInerney, who drove to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where Delaney was teaching at Vassar College. Kimper took a train from New York.

“We’d just imagine it through, sit with a cup of tea and came up with a structure, ideas, scenes from material we’d read the week before. We’d say, ‘Could you believe that part? What must have that like been like?’ “

Kimper, McInerney says, specializes in composing opera “embodying the idiom of the story in time.” Kimper began developing the musical score after the first scene was written.

“There had to be a few pages of the first scene written before I could begin writing the music,” Kimper said in a recent interview. She continued orchestrating the work right up until Martin Luther King Day.

Harris, too, says she was interested in being involved from the moment McInerney first told her about her dream. “But I told her, ‘I need to see the music,’ “ she recalled with a laugh. “We were around a year and half before we saw the first sheet of music. I wasn’t going to commit …”

Kimper’s score is written specifically with Harris’ almost baritone voice in mind, rather than that of a more typical operatic soprano, the composer said.

“Evelyn has a very, very deep voice, and Sojourner Truth was famous for having a deep voice. She’s basically singing an octave lower than I’m writing it,” Kimper said. “One of the first concepts before any music had been written was that she’d be allowed to improvise. She’s felt free to move within that and we’re only at the very beginning of what she can do with that. There are a few places in the score where it’s noted ‘ad lib,’ with a few cue notes, but I’ve told her to take it wherever she wanted to take that, since she’s really creating the role. And I’ve transcribed some of the things she’s doing into the score for a permanent record.”

As the script was being developed, rehearsals began with a cast – whose members in some cases had auditioned for parts that hadn’t even been written yet.

Surprises

Harris’ insight into the title character has seemed “astonishing” for someone with no acting training, McInerney said.

“I’ve been able to work with Evelyn as a master actor because of the depth of her approach and the way she works. It has to do with the way she embodies a song as her way of working and her way of being. She uses so much of her physical self, her spiritual self, her psychological self.”

McInerney may have contemplated having to teach the untrained actress a lot, but says, “If anything, she’s taught me. And it’s been really great.”

Kimper, McInerney and Delaney pored through multiple accounts of Truth’s life, from sanitized books to bloated articles that dealt with isolated incidents. Then, in the middle of their search, McInerney spotted in New York Review of Books the release of a new, definitive biography of Truth by Cornell University historian Margaret Washington.

Another discovery was when the three women stumbled on Pinkster, the African-American spring festival – the word derives from a Dutch word for Pentecost – held in the Northeast during the early-19th century, when slaves were allowed time off from work and given a chance to enjoy music, dance and food that harkened back to their African heritage.

“It was essentially an African fertility ceremony, translated into a celebration for the enslaved,” McInerney said. “It’s Mardi Gras, a frenzy of activity, dancing and food, with a Pinkster King, who was voted for.”

In the opera, Pinkster became a metaphor for the spiritual turmoil that slaves experienced in the days before emancipation in New York State in 1827 (Massachusetts had emancipated slaves more than 40 years earlier). Pinkster was incorporated into the opera as a “time to turn things upside down,” which Truth would probably have experienced when she was growing up. The scene – with help from Whately percussionist Tony Vacca and African dancer Abdou as the Pinkster King – draws on the first-hand experience of McInerney and Kimper, who last May visited a recreated Pinkster ceremony in New York’s Hudson Valley.

“It was just one of many surprises along the way,” McInerney said. Then, sounding a little like the opera’s title character, she added, “I just feel so guided and protected in this. That’s why the ‘leap of faith’ piece has been really simple.”

That serendipity applies even for the timing of the upcoming premiere, which was originally planned for last November, but which had to be rescheduled for February. Only in January did McInerney learn that this February’s Black History Month theme would be African-American women’s contributions to the making of America.

“It’s been like that every step of the way,” McInerney said. The synchronicity with which “Truth” has fallen together “is changing my life. I’ve never had it where I’ve done [a project] without question, with a deep, open heart, with no idea of what the payoff’s going to be. You let it all go, and I feel like I’m about 4 years old right now, maybe 2. I feel I know absolutely nothing. And it’s very freeing.”

‘I take my freedom’

The folk opera opens in 1817 near New Paltz, where 20-year-old Baumfree, as Sojourner Truth was known then, confronts her master, who’s tried to renege on his promise of her early freedom.

She sings:

“The master will keep his promise. I am strong where he is weak. I’ll make truth of his lie … Lord, true as you made me, I take what you’ve given me, I take my freedom.”

Carrying her infant daughter, Sophie, on her back, Baumfree escapes to her freedom, leaving behind three other children who would not be legally free under the 1827 emancipation order. The opera follows her pioneering court battle in 1827 to protect her young son, Peter, from being sold out of state.

The opera follows Baumfree two years later to New York City, where she tries to protect her son from getting in trouble with the law. There, the abolitionist preacher, who in the opera sings, “I hear God in the night, in my sleep … I hear God in the halls, in the streets,” is drawn in by religious charlatan Robert Matthews, who’s renamed himself the Prophet Matthias. She joins his religious cult – “The Kingdom of Matthias” and works for him as a housekeeper from 1832 to 1833. He’s arrested for a murder; Baumfree is arrested as an accomplice and is accused of trying to poison a white couple in the cult. Baumfree is found innocent and files and wins a slander suit against the couple – the first black person ever to win such a suit.

In 1843, “the voice of God” gives her the name Sojourner Truth, and she walks to Springfield and then Florence, where she joins the utopian Northampton Association of Education and Industry. She becomes an outspoken abolitionist and feminist working with Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, David Ruggles, Frances Gage and others.

The new opera, parts of which have been previewed in Deerfield, Northampton and New York City, concludes in Washington, D.C., where in 1865, Truth is seen bandaging the wounds of black Civil War veterans at Freedmen’s Hospital and bemoaning the wounds of her own son.

“The war is won. The freedmen come by the thousands. … Smallpox! Typhoid! Nowhere to live! Nothing to eat! … Is this our freedom. What war has been won?”

McInerney said the hardest part of building the opera was deciding how to end it. To leave its powerful main character losing her vibrancy as her life trails off toward its end – at age 86 in 1883 – would not have been right, she said.

Instead, it’s a child – a fictional character – who appears to tell a dispirited Truth:

“My mama was born a slave, oh Lord. Says you sang her free when you sang, ‘I see the same moon; I see the same stars. When we die, we shall both go to the same heaven.’”

Shouting “a little louder,” as she does at the beginning of the opera, Sojourner Truth proclaims that “Yes, we’ll get to heaven, but first, there’s work still to be done.”

McInerney got tearful as she described how the opera’s ending comes together, much as the creation of this work has been realized, as an act of faith.

“It was very important to us to end the piece in a way that ‘The Work Must Still Be Done,’” she said. “One of things that we don’t think about Sojourner Truth: She really built the foundation along with those people, she built the cornerstones of the edifice that is the Civil Rights movement, (which) still is building, as we know so well. She built some serious cornerstones. …. We wanted to express that: That happened then, and here we are now.”

Tickets for “Truth” are available on the Academy of Music website, www.academyofmusictheatre.com or by phone at 584.9032, ext.

Commenting is closed for this article.