Fifteen years ago, my composition teacher put an idea in my head. He said it almost to himself and in passing: “There was an incident in New Orleans where Italian immigrants were lynched. Nobody really knows about it, but it would make a powerful opera subject.” That was it. He only said it once.
My studies were going in a million directions, and the seed of writing opera (long since planted by my father, who, on most Sundays, sat in his recliner and wept to the Met Radio Broadcast) lay dormant. In the decade following graduation, I forged a path to opera via choral music, art song, chamber scores, and orchestral writing. My first few opera subjects were serendipitous adaptations that went just deep enough to tell the story that they were telling and little more. I researched the incident my teacher referenced, but it was too hot. A clumsy treatment would do more harm than good, and I felt (naively, perhaps) that I’d only get one shot at getting it right.
Since then (and thanks to the late Dr. See), I have come to embrace that my operas must be comprised of both the story that I’m telling as well as The Story That I’m Telling. For my teacher’s suggestion, the former was easy – it had been extensively researched and written about. The latter aspect took much longer to recognize, and longer still before I knew what to do with it.
In December 2016 I sat down to write the first treatment. The stark rhetoric of the 2016 election was jarring, and it still rung in my years. What really stuck was the unbridled vitriol toward immigrants.
My daughter – an American born and being raised in a foreign land – comes from immigrant lineage on both sides of her family. Living as a foreigner (with privileges, admittedly – I’ve creepily been told on more than one occasion that I’m the “good kind of foreigner”) has made me keenly aware of the transition anti-immigrant rhetoric makes to become government policy and societal norm. I watch it happening in my own country from afar, and I see it happening not only in the country in which I live, but in the surrounding nations as well.
I danced around this ugliness in that first draft, and my grasp on the idea tightened through the revision process. This is The Story I’m Telling.
This sentiment was echoed on April 12, 2019, when LaToya Cantrell, Mayor of New Orleans, publicly issued an apology on behalf of the City Government, which – by any interpretation of the history – was complicit in the lynching. In the course of her apology, she said, “I ask you to continue to stand with me against anti-immigrant violence, against division, and to stand up for what I have coined a ‘City of Yes.’”
Last week, I completed the fourth rewrite, after consulting with dramaturges, directors, conductors, composers, singers, and collaborative partners in the US and Europe. As the work continues, it progress of the opera – THE STRANGERS – can be viewed HERE.