Long Leaf Opera Company
Closed June 17
It takes a very long time for art to process history, and when an artwork comes along that makes a righteous step down that path toward understanding, it is very exciting. Such a work was presented in UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall last weekend, as a kickoff for the new daring venture of Long Leaf Opera Company, which primarily presents American works, and only operas sung in English.
Long Leaf began its inaugural summer opera festival with the premiere of Strange Fruit, directed by Randolph Umberger. Commissioned by Long Leaf, its score is by Chandler Carter, while its libretto, based on Lillian Smith's 1944 novel (titled after the song made famous by Billie Holiday), is by Joan Ross Sorkin. This story of interracial love and hatred set in small-town Georgia in 1920 could hardly have premiered at a better time: In the previous week, we'd seen news reports about the FBI reopening the file on the 1946 lynching of two black couples in Georgia, and on the 1967 Supreme Court decision that finally overturned laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Strange Fruit is a tragedy, and like many tragedies, it reveals not only fatal human flaws but also a counterbalancing human dignity and grace. The characters here are types, but true types, on both sides of the color line that divides this world. On the white side, there's the well-intentioned but narrow-minded woman (Caryl Price) trying to nudge her son onto the straight path of respectability through marriage to an appropriate white woman and membership in a fire and brimstone church. There is the slimy, ranting preacher (Michael Kilbridge), whose revival meetings presage the inevitable mob scene. There are the violent crackers laid off from the mill (Nathan Jones and Kerry Jennings), and the village idiot (Jay Baschon) who plays a pivotal role in setting off the mob. On the black side, there's the stalwart woman (Denise Payton) holding it all together, the rage-fueled young man back from the city (the intense Robert Hughes), and the respectable doctor (an admirable Jai Lé Carlos Smith).
Dancing on the color line are our heroine, Nonnie Anderson (Erina Newkirk), an educated black woman working as a nursemaid; Tracey Deen (Charles Stanton), the feckless white man who claims to love her; and Tracey's house servant, Big Henry (Jason McKinney), who believes he and Tracey are friends. When Nonnie's brother shoots Tracey, the black community helps him escape—leaving friendly and foolish Henry as the mob's prey. In the aftermath of these deaths, Nonnie asserts the validity of her love by remaining in the town and raising her child by Tracey.
Drawing on diverse American traditions (blues, gospel, jazz—although not the Holiday song), Carter has created lively music that moves us easily from scene to scene along a trajectory of emotion. The staging is inventive and excellently clear—which is a good thing, because in Sunday's performance, a great many of the lyrics were incomprehensible. The balance between the instrumental sound (the Carolina Chamber Symphony, led by Benjamin Keaton and supplemented by Chris Turner on harmonica and David DiGiuseppe on accordion) and the vocal sound was seriously off. The singers did not always have the volume needed for clarity when the orchestra soared, a problem further compounded by the many overlapping vocal lines. Oddly, the only time the music left an open field for the vocals was during a rendition of the 23rd Psalm—the words to which nearly everyone knows.
You would have to have been born on another planet to have been unable to follow the story, but for a company that prides itself on opera with lyrics understandable by its audience, this lack of verbal clarity was puzzling. The pacing was rather languid, as well, for such a dramatic and active story, but the work was enlivened by marvelous performances by Payton and McKinney—whose voices are big enough not to drown in the music's current. Newkirk was sweet as Nonnie, and when the orchestration allowed it to be heard, her voice was pure and lovely, and Stanton had some fine moments as her beloved Tracey.
Altogether this was an admirable beginning to Long Leaf's first summer festival. One hopes the company will revive this work in a clearer form another year, because we need this kind of art to help us process our racial history in America.
The Long Leaf Opera Festival continues through July 1 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Tickets are available through the Memorial Hall Box Office or at the door. For more information, visit www.longleafopera.org or call the box office, 843-3333.
June 22, 8 p.m. and June 24, 2 p.m. in Memorial Hall: Acts of Love: A Bill of One-Act Operas. The double bill will consist of Zachary Wadsworth's Venus and Adonis and Sir William Walton's The Bear.
June 23, 8 p.m. in Paul Green Theater: An Evening with Christine Weidinger, soprano. Pianist David Heid accompanies.
June 29, 30, 8 p.m., and July 1, 2 p.m. in Memorial Hall: A Grand Night for Singing. A program of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes.
June 30, 2 p.m. in Memorial Hall: At the Statue of Venus. A master class with Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking), to be followed by the Southern premiere of his new work, At the Statue of Venus.