Saturday, May 10, 2008

John Brown: Kansas City Lyric Opera

Ok, I am a big soft heart, I admit it. There is something emotionally compelling about a person's devotion to get their work or idea recognized and performed. As it was with the musical "Rent", where a young composer struggles to get his magnum opus performed on Broadway and sadly dies before he realizes the full extent of his success, the story of how "John Brown" by Kirke Mechem reached the stage is almost more interesting and compelling than the work itself.

Mechem devoted 20 years of his life in setting the tale of the abolitionist hero and sometime terrorist/outlaw to music. He spent years researching the writings of John Brown, visiting Brown related historic sites and delving deep into the history of the abolitionist movement. Parts of the opera (usually a chorus or aria) were performed here and there over the years. Highly critical reviews led to several rewrites. Finally, in 2008 everything seemed to be coming together. With the composer being a native of Kansas and with the Kansas City Lyric Opera celebrating its 50th anniversary, the staging of John Brown, set partially in near-by locales, seemed to be a natural.

A well known story with a flawed, controversial hero/anti-hero main character, intertwined with revered historical figures (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Amos Lawrence) and a contemporarily relevant message, John Brown is a tale tailor made for an opera. But in the end, Mechem's work ultimately lacks as an opera and takes on the lesser scale of a musical historical pageant. I could see some of the choruses and arias making an effective oratorio or concert piece. Not that "John Brown" is without some merit. Unashamedly lush choral writing, lyrical, tonal and basically conservative orchestration (sometimes sadly more over powering than effective) and some powerful arias and scenes can make for an enjoyable, audience pleasing albeit highly conventional opera. I just do not see any staying power. Outside of the hymns (most notably a moving setting of "Were You There?"), little of the music was memorable. The stage action was highly static, reflecting the highly declamatory libretto.

John Brown is thus straightforward story telling, the plot not complex and the ending well known before the curtain rises. Mechem, as librettist, paints a highly sympathetic picture of Brown. Thus from Brown's first line (one of the most controversial statements of Jesus Christ: "Think not that I come to send peace on earth. Not peace but a sword."), to the Gethsemane-like "Apotheosis" (think "Billy Budd") Mechem strives to portray Brown as a Jesus figure, an uncompromising revolutionary, a man who so loves his country and is so abhorred by the evil of slavery he is ready to kill and die for his cause.

James Maddalena (well known for creating the role of Richard Nixon in "Nixon In China") was a perfect Brown, part swaggering warrior, part intellectual who could earn the respect of Ralph Waldo Emerson, part messiah and yet a flawed human. His strong voice was rarely overwhelmed by the orchestration as were other cast members'. Donnie Ray Albert as Fredrick Douglass was also in fine voice, vividly portraying Brown's friend and inspiration. The sets and costumes were appropriate to the period, being 1850's rural America, shimmering gowns, flowing robes and towering castles were absent of course.

So as with "Rent", despite the mostly uninspired music and a flawed plot, the whole drama of the story, the production, the local color and the relevance of its message, John Brown resonated with the audience. I do not predict that John Brown will sweep the opera world as did "Rent" with Broadway; actually I highly doubt it will be performed frequently at all. Yet the old softy in me found it satisfying and even moving to see the composer (no young man himself) bound onto the stage of the opera to receive a rousing standing ovation from the capacity audience. This artist got to his promised land.

1 comment:

Kirke Mechem said...

Hey, Don, thanks for coming to my opera. You are welcome to your opinions, but please allow me to correct a few factual mistakes in your blog. I did not devote 20 years of my life to this opera -- don't believe everything you read in the paper. As for "Highly critical reviews" of earlier parts of the opera, I can't imagine where you got that. Did you make it up? "Songs of the Slave," a suite from the opera has been performed in more than 40 cities, always ending with standing ovations and excellent reviews. There have not been several rewrites; I simply made some cuts. There is no hymn in the opera with the words or title "Were you there?" I hope your prediction that the opera will not be performed much in the future proves as incorrect as many of your facts. A number of other companies came to the premiere and fortunately for me they do not share your low opinion of the work. You seem like a nice guy, as I would expect a music lover who describes himself as an "old softy" to be. Perhaps you should pay more attention to your soft old heart and less to your desire to express your opinions before checking your facts. --Kirke Mechem, composer.