June 6, 2020
I’m thinking of you this morning and I am moved by a necessity from within to write you. I’m thinking, as I often do at this time of year, of you and Glimmerglass.
Last year at this time I was filled with anxiety and feeling new mysterious unknown expectations of what I had wrought as a first-time librettist — BLUE — a tale of a Black family living in Harlem, a police officer father; a soul food restauranteur mother; a teenage political activist son. What happens when the unarmed son is killed by a White police officer? How do friends, community and church respond?
What a gamble you took in commissioning BLUE! Don’t know of another opera house that would’ve taken the blind leap off a cliff into the scorching terrain of confronting systemic racism, social injustice and police brutality. Hardly a ticket seller…
A saving grace for me: You introduced me to my co-pilot collaborator, the endlessly talented Jeanine Tesori. My nights of despair and desperate writing were relieved, revealed, and alleviated by Jeanine’s support, good counsel, humor and love.
Several weeks prior, last year, I was up for set looks (Gasp! My heart was pounding — this is really gonna happen!). Many months earlier, a workshop. I recall that workshop presentation date so well, beyond and besides my nervousness — the notes that followed, including a complete overhaul and “renovation” of the set design — it was your birthday. We celebrated with the BLUE workshop cast and Glimmerglass family gloriously serenading you (competing sopranos, altos, tenors and basses brilliantly shattering the room) as you blew out candles, remember? I hadn’t realized at the time how your name day must have been astrologically a good omen.
I’ve a history with Glimmerglass, as you know. It began when Paul Kellogg invited me in 2001 to direct my favorite opera DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES with my friend Joyce Castle, in a harrowing performance as the dying Mother Superior; the elegant Brit: Dame Anne Evans, in what would be her retirement role; the deeply affecting Maria Kanyova as Blanche, and all everyone else — what a cast! —for summer 2002.
At the premiere a severe thunderstorm, halfway through the opera, battered the metal roof of The Alice Busch, and as the Salve Regina began, beckoning the nuns to the guillotine, the rain stopped. It was a miraculous premiere.
I’ve fond Glimmerglass memories directing Copland’s THE TENDER LAND, with the entire cast made up of extraordinary Young Artists; you trusted me with two baroque operas: the American premiere of CATO IN UTICA and XERXES, both designed by the master, John Conklin; PATIENCE, again with Joyce Castle; (hilarious and show stopping with her cello partner); DEATH IN VENICE, always loved the Thomas Mann novella and was deeply honored to interpret Britten’s beguiling opera.
A close second to BLUE, —my Glimmerglass experience with Kurt Weill’s masterpiece LOST IN THE STARS with Eric Owens and Wynn Harmon is a personal favorite memory; — those impossibly unforgettable songs, the cathartic Maxwell Anderson story with themes of intolerance, father and son dynamics/conflict, apartheid, moral transformation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This quote from Alan Paton’s CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY, the book LOST IN THE STARS is adapted from, was my guide:
“I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring only the good for their country, come together to work for it. I have one fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, that will find we are turned to hating.”
You insisted I should direct the opera first in Cape Town, South Africa before bringing the production and some of the cast to Glimmerglass. My first trip to Africa — country of my ancestors. Overwhelming. Unforgettable. Thank you, ‘Cesca.
I see my digital clock lights up: Thursday, June 6, 5:30 AM.
And now the planets have clashed and the whole world has shifted. Out of a chaotic sky and the times teeming with lightning, leaning in sorrow and outrage, in the saddened continuing aftermath of the pandemic. It has taken so much of my community in Harlem. Massive unemployment, lines snaking around several blocks to receive provisions from the food pantry at 116th Street. Small family businesses that have forever closed. The recent brutal murders of Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed and George Floyd — my people and I are left shocked and shivering, fending for ourselves. Moving targets. Who’s next? How are we to catch our breath again? How are we to put our trust in the laws of the land again?
It is difficult for me not to feel utterly defeated. Not difficult at all for me to see my face photoshopped and superimposed over George Floyd’s face. I’m angry and personally frightened as a black man living in an increasingly terrifying divisive country — where a uniformed white police officer, in broad daylight, hands in his pocket, a smug smirk on his arrogant face, confidently and with impunity, in the middle of the street, snuffs out the life of an unarmed, handcuffed black man.
“But man, proud man/ Dressed in a little brief authority/ Most ignorant of what he’s most assured/ His glassy essence, like an angry ape/
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven/ As make the angels weep./
Who, with our spleens/ Would all themselves laugh mortal.”
I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m concerned for the future of our country and I wonder how and if ever we are able to move forward — together.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I also wanted to write you this morning, dear friend, because I am selfishly sighing and languishing the loss of Glimmerglass 2020 season. Your 10th Anniversary season: THE SOUND OF MUSIC; RINALDO; DIE FEEN (what?! Wow!); DON GIOVANNI.
I wanted to see you and assist on building the float that drags you triumphantly through the Cooperstown streets on a chariot of roses. Happy 10th. Anniversary, ‘Cesca!
It was eleven years ago when you contacted me. “We’ve not met. I know of you and your work and especially your work at Arena Stage with cultural diversity. I need for you to join me in changing the demographics all over Glimmerglass Opera. I’m about to take over. I’m planning my first season. Will you help me in my mission?”
Your quest to bring persons of color on stage, in general; and blacks, in particular, is an astounding achievement. Every season and every production, under your watch, black artists are asked to hold the stage in leading roles or featured roles. No other opera house in the world, (and I know something about that, having been everywhere) can boast that record claim. Eric Owens and, my God!, Jessye Norman, artists in residence giving masterclasses. Ta-Nehisi Coates. The popular sold-out Sunday morning Gospel Event sessions. Black directors and designers. You’ve launched the careers (I stopped counting after 30) of black artists, having major, Major, MAJOR careers(!) in all the finest important houses worldwide.
Your contribution allowing us to see the infinite variety of the people of the world on stage and bringing real change, equity, empathy, political and social awareness, inclusion, understanding and the ability to listen and take action to Glimmerglass and Cooperstown, is beyond reproach. In just ten seasons. I’m in your thrall.
Sheltered-in. I’m unable listen or watch opera now. (Except a favorite, FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS). I’m listening to Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer, Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Weill, Negro Spirituals and Bob Dylan. Finding time to read more than I have in years. I’ve read THE KITES by Romain Gary, Vivien Schweitzer’s A MAD LOVE, a must for all lovers of opera, (you wrote a well- deserved blurb of praise on the back cover) and Nina Sankovitch’s positively stunning, magnificent, compelling, AMERICAN REBELS, (I highly recommend for your book club). I’m a Sankovitch fan. Her previous book, LOWELLS OF MASSACHUSETTS, was eye-opening and powerful.
More than anything I turn to my endless shelves of poetry during this unsettling time. My champions: Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, Rita Dove, Millay, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Whitman, Ferlinghetti, e.e. cummings, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Claudia Rankine, Shakespeare sonnets. Poetry straightens me out, lifts me, centers me, gives me strength,
balances and inspires me, triggers that inner chord near my heart of empathy, human motivation and understanding self-awareness, acceptance of who I am and how I fit in this cosmic landscape, poetry has me diving me deeper into love.
“Hope is a thing with feathers/ that perched on the soul.” “A bird that stalks down his narrow cage/ Can seldom see through his bars of rage.” “People will forget what you did/ People will forget what you said/ People will never forget/ How you made them feel.” “I shall love you always/ No matter what party is in power/ No matter what temporarily expedient/ Contribution of allied interests wins the war/ Shall love you always.” “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is like/ A broken winged bird/ That cannot fly.” “Two roads diverged in a wood/ and I/ I took the one least traveled by/ And that has made all the difference.”
I will miss Glimmerglass this summer. We need our poets and song writers more than ever. I need the world of Glimmerglass Festival. Not as an escape, but as a wondrous surround sound refuge that taps into our common identity and reminds us of our shared humanity.
I need to see my Glimmerglass friends: Abby Gibson (my first friend at Glimmerglass) the beautiful and graceful Delores Wharton, Joan Desens, Dianne Ciano, Kelley Rourke, Brittany Lesavoy, Amra Catovic, Eric Owens, Deb Shippee, Joel Morain, Barbara Mulhern, Joseph Colaneri, Abby Rodd, Felicia Blum, Chris Devlin, Allen Perriello, John DeMain, and so many others that makes the village community of Glimmerglass survive and thrive.
Each season I’m especially moved at half hour, seeing wardrobe in the halls outside of dressing- rooms waiting to be of service; at curtain fall end seeing stage operations interns changing over for the next show — sometimes late into early morning. I miss it all.
I’m recalling the Glimmerglass memories this morning, looking forward to creating new memories in the future. This lengthy letter to you (I should’ve provided a spoiler alert: Set aside a lot of time before reading.) I needed to set down in witting my open heart to you.
HAPPY 10th ANNIVERSARY! Finally, dear ‘Cesca:
“Stay well, Oh keeper of my heart;
Go well, throughout all your days; Your star, the luckiest star above; Your ways, the luckiest ways;
Go well, throughout all your days; Stay well, come well to my door again.”
~Lost in the Stars Much love~