(Composer Damien Geter)
By Montague Gammon III
An unsung hero of the Underground Railroad, which spirited enslaved African-Americans to havens safe from bondage in the years from the late 1700’ to the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, gets that unsung status quite literally reversed when Virginia Opera’s curtain goes up on the world’s second production of “Sanctuary Road” by Paul Moravec and Mark Cambell.
“Sanctuary Road” is based on the memoirs of William Still, who lived from 1821 to 1902. The son of two former slaves, he was an active abolitionist and a successful Philadelphia businessman, but no relation to William Grant Still, Jr., the coincidentally named, Mississippi born, African-American composer of a later generation.
William Still of “Sanctuary Road” also earned the designations of historian and writer by publishing his meticulously kept records of the roughly 800 escaped slaves who found freedom through the his help, by way of the informally named Underground Railroad.
That was a loosely organized network of safe houses and surreptitious routes, whose “conductors,” free African-Americans like Still, along with some white folks opposed to slavery, used various subterfuges to guide fugitives to new homes in slave-free Canada, the Northern free states, and occasionally to Mexico and free places in the Caribbean.
The opera is based on Still’s 1872 self published memoir, “The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts,” which contained his interviews with his Railroad “passengers.” First composed as an oratorio premiering at Carnegie Hall in May 2018, “Sanctuary Road” made its operatic debut at the North Carolina Opera on March 4, 2022, after composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Cambell gave it more dynamic form, in which incidents from Still’s work on the Underground Railroad are dramatized.
Two Virginians feature among the escapees: Richmond slave Henry “Box” Brown, and Clarissa Davis, who bolted Portsmouth disguised as a man.
The Virginia Opera production has an accomplished artistic team packed with prize winners. Harvard and Columbia educated Moravec won the 2004 music Pulitzer Prize for his chamber composition, “Tempest Fantasy.” He also has a shelf full of other awards and prestigious academic positions. Campbell’s opera “Silent Night,” composed by Kevin Puts, garnered a Pulitzer Prize for music; he wrote the words for “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” which picked up a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 2018. His awards and fellowships, like Moravec’s, fill an online page.
Conductor Everett McCorvey, properly Doctor of Musical Arts McCorvey, heads musical performance groups, serves on the panels and boards of the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations, and holds the Chair of Opera Studies and Professor of Voice at the University of Kentucky.
Fast rising stage director Kimille Howard, with her frequent flier production team of set designer Kimberly Powers, lighting designer John Alexander, and costume designer Danielle Preston, won last year’s Opera America Robert L. B. Tobin Director-Designer Prize.
As Assistant Director of the 2019 Met production of “Porgy and Bess,” Howard worked with Sanctuary soloists bass-baritone Damien Geter, mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng and tenor Terrence Chin-Loy. Her Virginia Opera debut will be her first outing with soprano Laquita Mitchell and baritone Adam Richardson.
Soloist and Virginia native Damien Geter is an active composer himself: Richmond Symphony’s Composer in Residence. His song cycle “Cotton” is set for free Virginia Opera performances – reservations required – at St. Mary’s Basilica and Norfolk State’s E.L. Hamm Fine Arts Building just after Sanctuary Road plays the Harrison Opera House.
Geter is cast as Still; the other soloists perform multiple roles as individual escapees whom Still helped to freedom. All are joined by the Virginia Opera Chorus.
The articulate and prodigiously busy Howard spent the better part of an hour in a telephone conversation about her take on “Sanctuary Road” and its associated issues and her own background, and about “Artists being able to tell stories of people who actually look like them.”
She went on to express a broader perspective and her hope that “people from all cultural identities…even if the story isn’t about people that look like you…would still be interested in experiencing a walk in the life of others, and seeing how your life parallels theirs,” and that this artistic experience would lead to “finding ways of understanding, finding ways of sympathizing and empathizing.”
“It’s only a glimmer of what William Still did for the survivors of the Railroad…There are so many people [whom he helped] beyond these that we are covering.”
The word important and the concept of importance, surfaces often in her comments on Sanctuary Road.
“It’s an important piece of history that is not well known…it’s so important that this opera is being done…It’s so important that this history never gets forgotten, and that those that came before us are remembered and memorialized. And it’s so important to look back, to always look back so that we don’t make those same mistakes in the future, especially in a time when there are incendiary feelings and conflicting political and societal views about what is taught or remembered.”
“It’s more important than ever that we tell these stories that can never be left out of the canon, of the conversation.”
And “It’s in English,” she added, addressing novice opera attendees. “It’s an important American story so you don’t have to worry about it being [set in] some lofty 14th Century Italy.”
“These stories of human experience will help us [she pauses briefly and the pitch of her voice rises be better to one another – I hope?”
WANT TO GO?
By Paul Moravec and Mark Cambell
Conducted by Dr. Everett McCorvey, Stage Director Kimille Howard
Presented by Virginia Opera
Adam Turner, Artistic Director
January 26 & 28
Harrison Opera House
Virginia Opera Pride in Black Voices
Jan. 30, St Mary’s Basilica, Norfolk
Jan. 31, E.L. Hamm Fine Arts Building, Norfolk State University