Thursday, November 12, 2015

New York Times: Seeing Voting Rights Under Siege, Philip Glass Rewrites an Opera ["Appomattox"]

The composer Philip Glass at Kennedy Center, where a revised version of his opera “Appomattox” will be staged. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

        Soloman Howard

The New York Times

By Michael Cooper

Nov. 10, 2015

WASHINGTON — Each new chapter of American history has a way of casting what came before it in a different light. So when the composer Philip Glass and the playwright Christopher Hampton decided to revive “Appomattox,” the opera about the Civil War that they wrote a decade ago, they found that the changing civil rights landscape cried out for a rewrite.                                                                                                                                                                         “We were writing it in 2005 and 6,” Mr. Glass said in an interview. “But it never occurred to me that the Supreme Court would gut the Voting Rights Act.”
Since the first version of “Appomattox” had its premiere in 2007 at the San Francisco Opera, many states have passed laws making it harder to vote, and, in 2013, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So Mr. Glass and Mr. Hampton significantly revised the opera and made voting rights a central theme.
When the reimagined work has its premiere at the Kennedy Center here on Saturday, presented by the Washington National Opera, audiences will see how Mr. Glass, perhaps the most prominent American composer of his generation, weighs in on a pressing issue in the nation’s capital — where many of the scenes he is depicting took place and where, if history is any guide, there are likely to be policy makers and a Supreme Court justice or two in the audience.
“We are now in very interesting territory, where the artists are trying to catch up,” Mr. Glass, 78, said at the Kennedy Center before a recent rehearsal. “It’s not art imitating life; it’s art trying to catch up with life. Because life is changing in front of us.”
The rethought opera harks back to the days before texts were considered sacrosanct, when composers like Handel, Verdi and Puccini continued to tinker with and transform their finished works over the years. The new “Appomattox,” even though its subject is history, can feel as timely as a Twitter feed, with its explorations of race, police violence, civil rights and voting rights. And it is joining a long operatic tradition of using historical subjects to resonate with contemporary issues — from the way Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” chorus in the biblical epic “Nabucco” came to be heard as an Italian nationalist anthem to how his “Don Carlo” used Spanish history to weigh in on realpolitik and the Roman Catholic Church.
Now the tradition is being updated with “Appomattox.” The original version of the opera portrayed the final days of the Civil War, and dramatized Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the village of Appomattox Court House, Va., before flashing forward to brief scenes from Reconstruction and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. While the first act of the new, expanded “Appomattox” is still set in the 19th century, the second is now devoted to civil and voting rights.
The revised opera opens with Frederick Douglass visiting the White House in 1865 and telling Abraham Lincoln he would like to see “voting rights for all free men of color.” In the second act, a century later, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visits the White House to press President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Voting Rights Act.
Mounting an opera about voting rights in the nation’s capital is “so fitting and appropriate,” said Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, whose skull was fractured by a state trooper during the 1965 march in Selma, Ala., that became known as Bloody Sunday, and who said he had been surprised to learn that he was a character in the opera.
“There’s a great deal of discussion going on in the country about what the Supreme Court did when it put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act that was passed and signed into law 50 years ago,” Mr. Lewis said in a telephone interview. “The issue is so present right now.”
Soloman Howard, a rising young bass who is singing the roles of Douglass and King, said that it was difficult not to hear contemporary echoes in the voting rights scenes — and noted the recent uproar over Alabama’s move to close offices that issue drivers’ licenses, including in predominantly black neighborhoods, after moving to require people to show photo identification to vote. “It’s still very much alive,” he said of the issue.

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