Our American Cousin

By Hayley Wood

Janna BatyThis June Northampton’s Academy of Music, a nineteenth-century theatre not unlike Ford’s Theater, in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, will host a contemporary opera, Our American Cousin, about the night of Lincoln’s death. Composer Eric Sawyer, a member of the composition faculty at Amherst College, is the founder of Live in Concert, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the audience for new music by presenting works by living composers in combination with other artistic media, including dance, poetry, film, and computer-assisted technologies. Librettist John Shoptaw is Professor of English at UC Berkeley, where he teaches American poetry and poetry writing. His work for the opera is his second collaboration with Live in Concert, the first having been the setting of his poem “Itasca,” about the discovery of the source of the Mississippi River, to music for four singers and electronic instruments.

The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities awarded Live in Concert a $7,500 Liberty and Justice for All grant in March 2007. The opera presents a play within a play: Our American Cousin, the actual play that the Lincolns were watching at Ford’s Theater in Washington on the night of the assassination. It was the first Broadway hit and a reliable income generator for Laura Keene’s traveling theater company throughout the Civil War. In the opera, Laura Keene (a real historic personage) greets the Lincolns and describes the play about to be performed, supposing that it will be particularly relevant to them, since it depicts “a certain backwoods bumpkin,/ honest Asa, [who] travels east to reunite/two branches of a severed family.”

Characters in the opera—both in character within the period romantic melodrama, and as “themselves” backstage—muse idealistically on the power of art to help audiences forget violence and discord as well as the cover it provides from reality. One actor learns that the young man he hired to take his place as a soldier has been killed in the war.

Audience members—represented by the opera’s chorus—voice their perspectives as well. Nurses recall their experiences with the war’s wounded; freed former slaves (former slaves were very likely among the audience members at the 1865 performance) refer to their harrowing journeys from the South and the perceptions by whites that they are “three-fifths of a man”; Union veterans claim to have fought to preserve the unity of the nation, not to free slaves; businessmen crow about their war profits. The opera concludes, after Lincoln is shot and various leading characters respond, with the play’s cast and audience members uniting in an elegy of the “eye for an eye”-style justice that fate seems to demand: “Blood will have blood for blood/until every drop drawn with a lash/shall be paid for with another drawn with a gun.”

Donald WilkinsonA story so central to the character of the United States may be especially well suited to opera, which, Eric Sawyer claims, is uniquely able to “tell some stories in a more immediate and resonant way than any other medium, especially those on subjects of national and cultural identity.” With this performance, Live in Concert will be promoting its mission to bring new music to audiences that might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience it. Audience members unfamiliar with opera will benefit from preperformance panel discussions with musicians and performers. Supertitles and programs containing the libretto will help audience members follow the action, keep up with the play within the play, and catch the subtleties of the poetry being sung. John Shoptaw notes that “the opera is sung in American; opera gives a theatrical experience emotionally enhanced and intensified by music. Despite its historical pretext, the opera is funny and fun; it’s OK to laugh. Both the writing and the music are accessible and absorbing.” The music for Our American Cousin falls into the category of “modern classical,” which Eric Sawyer describes as a “dual concept, with nods both to the present moment and to time-honored tradition.” The performance will involve classically trained musicians. (Sawyer is a classically trained composer who is also a solo and chamber pianist.) Modern classical music can incorporate elements of varied musical traditions such as jazz, pop, world music, and Broadway show tunes. Just as a merging of diverse music traditions invigorates modern classical music, Live In Concert is actively promoting the idea that a multitude of artistic disciplines, such as dance, poetry, and theater, can combine with new music and amplify the effects of every element.

The Academy of Music in Northampton is an ideal venue for such a rich and unusual theatrical offering. The theatre itself, which opened in 1891, is the set, and a very fine one, with a box for the presidential couple, the same kind of door of access to the box that John Wilkes Booth had, the same visibility from the audience seats, and appropriate period ornamentation. There are other historic ties between the Academy and Laura Keene’s company. In the Academy lobby hangs a photograph of Joseph Jefferson, who played the American cousin of the play during its run on Broadway (but not at Ford’s Theater on the night of Lincoln’s assassination). Most likely he appeared in other plays at the Northampton Academy of Music. E. H. Sothern, the son of the actor who played the comic Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin—the trademark performer of the production—appeared several times at the Academy.

The hope of Live in Concert and Mass Humanities is that the magnificent combination of art and history presented in the opera, accompanied by panel discussions with the composer, librettist, and stage director, will both expose new audiences to new music and stir audience members to consider how the thematic elements in the performance affect their own lives. In the opera, Laura Keene bids her audience to “forget awhile,” but I think our librettist would have us remember.

Our American Cousin will be performed at the Academy of Music in Northampton on June 20 and 22. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the opera website: www.ouramericancousin.com

©2008 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published Mass Humanities, Spring 2008