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Vote, Sing, Breathe


The art of protest

In the early morning hours of November 19, 1861, the muse loosed some fateful lightning, jolting the poet and playwright Julia Ward Howe from her sleep at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. During this seventh month of the Civil War, Howe had come to town on account of her husband’s work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the agency charged with improving the health of soldiers. Washington filled Howe with “a feeling of discouragement…. Something seemed to say to me, ‘You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help any one; you have nothing to give and there is nothing for you to do.’”

On November 18, Howe’s party had taken a day trip just outside the city to view the Army of the Potomac on parade. During the slow, tedious journey back to Washington, along a road packed with troops, they sought the recourse of all bored travelers: a singalong. As they busted out the abolitionist anthem “John Brown’s Body (lies a-mouldering in the grave),” the soldiers marching around them joined in: glory, hallelujah!

The song’s melody originated in the hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” from the camp revivals of the Second Great Awakening. After the 1859 execution of John Brown, several folk variations resurrected the song for the abolitionist movement; there was even a dirty version (“We’ll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples/’til he gets the diarhee”). Although these soldiers restrained themselves to the variant “Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree,” Howe felt that a reboot of the song, with a little more gravitas, was in order. Waking shortly before dawn, she leapt out of bed to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which would be played for Lincoln, inspire troops in later American wars, and martialize state funerals from Churchill’s to Reagan’s.

Perhaps Howe’s muse also visited Martin Luther King Jr., another midnight writer at the Willard Hotel, where he sat up late revising “I Have a Dream.” King repurposed the “Battle Hymn” for nonviolence, declaiming its verses from a flatbed truck in Montgomery and, in his last public utterance, in Memphis, closing with, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

One marcher’s “Battle Hymn” is another’s “Solidarity Forever.” It’s the most protean and persistent of justice songs, the music of conscience, the music of the capital. Evangelical, martial, pacifist, and socialist, it’s as familiar and ecumenical a Washington institution as the Mall itself, that soundscape of protest, jeremiad, and prayer, of call-and-response, chants, shouts, mic checks, and the furious, grieving cadence of “I can’t breathe.”

Last fall, I took the bus to Washington, not to protest, but to hear the protest music: a new version of Philip Glass and playwright/librettist Christopher Hampton’s 2007 opera, Appomattox. The original opera, which depicted the final days of the Civil War, framed the meeting of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee not as the closure of hostilities, but as the beginning of a new era of systemic racial violence, from Klan terrorism to Jim Crow and brutality against civil-rights activists. For 2015, Glass and Hampton wrote a new second act that moved from the Selma marches to the White House, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and, implicitly, protesting the gutting of the VRA by the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. “The events of 1965 are not very far away, and truly nothing very much has changed,” said Glass over the phone, the day before the premiere. “All kinds of things are happening, like Black Lives Matter. The hunting down by the police of people of color. Everyone has purchase now; we have lots of documentation of people in uniforms molesting our citizens, murdering, shooting people in the back.”

Shelby County v. Holder eliminated federal oversight of state and local jurisdictions with histories of chronic racial discrimination in voting. For the majority ruling, Chief Justice John R. Roberts (joined by Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas, who wrote a concurring opinion) wrote, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (joined by Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor), wrote, “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.” One such repetition occurred in 2014, when Alabama’s 2011 voter ID law took effect without preclearance: prior to Shelby County v. Holder, the VRA would have subjected the law to Justice Department approval. Then in the fall of 2015, Alabama announced the closure of thirty-four driver’s licensing offices in eight of the ten counties with the state’s highest concentrations of black voters—including the county where Selma is located. If 1865 spoke to 1965, and 1965 to 2015, then the new Appomattox had to address the ongoing disenfranchisement and civil-rights violations of the twenty-first century: state violence, Congress’s failure to restore the VRA, and the prospect, in 2016, of a presidential election stripped of VRA protections for the most vulnerable voters.

“All over again we’re having to get out there and secure the most basic form of being an American citizen, which is the right to vote,” said Tazewell Thompson, director of WNO’s Appomattox. “I feel once again I’m right in the red-hot center of demonstrating for this cause. ‘A hundred years, we still ain’t free.’ Let’s see what Philip Glass can do for the movement!”

I took my seat amidst all the gilt, crystal, and plush of the orchestra section, fanning myself with my program. I felt completely jangled by an extended BoltBus ride and a sprint from the Metro to the Kennedy Center—and by a little cognitive dissonance, too, a confusion of signals. For my night at the opera, I wore a little black dress and carried opera glasses. Although the performance would recognize both Selma and Black Lives Matter, I’d left the placard and first-aid kit I usually carry to protests at home. WNO is a welcoming place, where nobody sniggers if you shout “bravo!” instead of “brava!” and where, even on opening night, just as many patrons show up in jeans as in gowns, but no opera house looks like a hotbed of dissent, the popular origins of the art form and the revolutionary tendencies of Verdi and Wagner notwithstanding.

Rather, the place inspired me with a little reverence, a hint of pilgrimage. I was about to hear a civil-rights opera only steps away from the Mall—and from the Lincoln Memorial, where Marian Anderson sang in 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution had barred her from performing at Constitution Hall (about which the teenage Martin Luther King Jr. wrote for a high-school speech contest, “Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the supreme court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment…. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, even after it has declared her to be its best citizen”).

The lights went down; Appomattox began. All the opera’s action—violence, grief, and nearly smothered hope—took place in a spare, classical set that could represent a courthouse, church, military camp, or presidential mansion. Civil War generals sang with battle-strained huskiness (Richard Paul Fink as Ulysses S. Grant) or with jaunty grandeur undercut by ironic puffs from the orchestra (David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee). A quartet of women, joined by a women’s chorus, sang of the sorrows of war in springtime: “The roads are fit for death to ride.” A series of historical vignettes flashed by in speeches, letters, and music that ranged from folk arrangements to soaring Italianate lines, while, in the audience, I sat scribbling lyrics and jotting musical notes, listening earnestly and with enjoyment, but waiting for something I couldn’t quite identify yet.

Then a massive Confederate flag unfurled over the stage.

Silence, the silence that falls when hundreds of people hold their breath, not knowing how to respond: with astonishment, hisses and boos, or, possibly, nostalgia?

At the firing of a gunshot, we all flinched. The flag collapsed, crashing to the floor. Then they filed in: soldier after soldier, wearing dark-blue Union uniforms and bearing rifles, their expressions set, their feet filling the theater with the sound of marching. They trampled the flag underfoot. They opened their mouths to sing an anthem of triumph, set to rhythms that were new but, somehow, familiar:

Oh, we’re the bully soldiers of the “First of Arkansas,”

We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law,

We can hit a Rebel further than a white man ever saw,

As we go marching on…


They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin,

They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin,

They will have to give us house-room, or the roof shall tumble in!

As we go marching on.

It was the most militant version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” ever written; its singers were the U.S. First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent), the black men who, in the months following the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, had freed themselves from enslavement and run to enlist in the U.S. army. Their “Marching Song of the First Arkansas,” variously attributed to the soldiers themselves, to their white captain, or, later, to Sojourner Truth, was first published by the Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments. The song sheet noted, “Captain Miller says the ‘boys’ sing the song on dress parade with an effect which can hardly be described, and he adds that ‘while it is not very conservative, it will do to fight with.’”

As Thompson put it, “Imagine a song like that in the 1860s! By black men! Isn’t that something?” It was. Damned if these freedmen had anything to say about the sorrows of war, in this set that now evoked a Union-occupied plantation house. Damned if the scene didn’t evoke Bree Newsome all over again. Damned if the audience didn’t erupt in applause, marveling at the resurrection of the verses by these singing men, and by American’s most renowned living classical composer, the one some people call a minimalist.

“My feeling is that nothing can be more pressing and urgent than questions of civil rights and constitutional rights,” Glass told me. “I started out writing abstract operas, I’ve got bunches of operas about things like that, like In the Penal Colony, of Kafka. It’s a very contemporary piece, about abuse of prisoners, about Guantánamo, it seems to be about that. I ended up so much in the political arena, but I never meant to do that; I was trying to write beautiful operas. But the things that became important as I became older and sadder about the way things were happening, I wanted these things to become part of opera.”

With regard to the famous Glass rhythmic cycles, the repetitions and orchestral churnings that exasperate some people and waft others into an ecstatic, mathematical headspace…. I heard my first Glass opera, Satyagraha, days after a protest where I witnessed the use of unnecessary force by police against protesters and where I was helped to escape to safety. Since then, I’ve never heard the structures of Glass’s music simply as formal sound projections, onto a backdrop of historical source material. Now, I hear in the musical forms the forms of nonviolent resistance itself: holding steady, taking small steps forward, being beaten back, and getting up again. The repeated notes, beats, and waves of harmonies sustaining and reemerging, shifting in the slightest increments, are the sounds of labor, patience, the ache of endurance, and the unrelieved expectation of changes that hardly ever come.

In Appomattox, that effort is exhausting and often frightening. All music is vibration that enters you, shaking you with forces over which you have no control.The sounds of war, brutality, repression, and bigotry were overwhelming. I got chills. I thought of the musicians’ hands cramping over the arpeggios, and of muscles tensed for flight, standing motionless for hours, or shivering with fear. Voices raised over and over, in crowds and choruses, or stranded, alone and defiant. The numbness and tedium, and the excitement. The abrupt shifts, the vocal conflicts when one person shouts threats and another weeps. In Glass’s music I heard the sound of the slow, unrelenting work of change—of eruptions of terror and despair—and of those rare, radiant expanses when goodness seems possible, when you can breathe.

Chrystal E. Williams, who sang the roles of Coretta Scott King and Elizabeth Keckley (an enslaved woman who bought her own freedom and became a celebrity dressmaker to the First Lady in 1861), told me, “There are some moments in this opera where we were just crying, we couldn’t even sing sometimes, because of what we heard.” When, in Act One, Williams’s Keckley joined Mary Todd Lincoln, Mary Custis Lee, and Julia Grant (Anne-Carolyn Bird, Keriann Otaño, and Melody Moore) in singing their irreconcilable griefs, they embodied the dream of a Washington where the most antagonistic people might weep, turn toward each other, harmonize over a thrum of strings, and listen.

Only when the multitudes leave the Mall, or the opera house, can you hear the silence from the Capitol.

Act Two of Appomattox transforms the set into an Alabama church whose congregation is mourning the voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. On the night of February 18, 1965, a state trooper shot and killed Jackson, who was protecting his mother from being beaten by the troopers. In the opera, Soloman Howard, in the role of Martin Luther King, eulogized Jackson: “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” The orchestra below and the chorus onstage took up the verse. The singers held each other’s hands, swayed with pain, and were buoyed up again, committing their individual voices to a glorious unison.

Over the phone, Glass had asked me a question. “When we put these things into theater works or books or artworks, what effect does it really have? I’m not sure I really know. It can be a rallying point for people, but they already agree with you…. It’s very rare you get to talk with someone you don’t agree with. We’re preaching to the choir. I would love it if the Supreme Court justices, very smart people, were there. And there are some really right-wing people.”

I also wondered about the audience’s takeaway. Despite WNO’s evangelism for the democratization of opera, there’s something about the house’s midcentury, nouveau-imperial aesthetic that, imposes, grandly, as though to answer any questions of access and influence. If Appomattox’s cast of characters is a Who’s Who of D.C. power (three presidents, J. Edgar Hoover), then so is the roster of the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees, printed in the Playbill: starting with Michelle Obama as an Honorary Chair, down through the legislators appointed by the president or designated by act of Congress. Who was the opera really for?

So I worked my way through two press teams, to secure a provisional kind of invitation to the opening night after-party. Gaining clearance from the phalanx of guards, I approached Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was sitting in a corner of the party room chatting about the Glimmerglass Festival, the upstate New York opera festival (whose artistic director is WNO’s Francesca Zambello) where, last summer, she had given a talk on opera, art, and the law. I asked Justice Ginsburg who she thought needed to hear Appomattox.

“Everyone in Congress,” she said, “so they’ll re-pass the Voting Rights Act.”

Opera’s reputation for elitism, deserved or not, serves one subversive end: it convenes extremely powerful people and forces them to listen to what’s good for them. But only if they’ve bought tickets. That night, everyone in Congress wasn’t there. Chief Justice Roberts wasn’t there. Appomattox closed, after six performances just over the course of a week. Tazewell Thompson and WNO moved on with another opera addressing civil rights, Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars(which Thompson first directed for Cape Town Opera), based on Cry, the Beloved Country. Perhaps another house might stage Appomattox in time for the 2018 elections—if not for Congress to hear, then for the people.

Amidst all his reservations about the efficacy of political opera, Glass held to one certainty. “When we take contemporary events and put them on the stage, it reinforces what’s happening all around us, so we can’t pretend they’re not happening.” That was why he’d adapted King’s Selma address for twenty-first-century opera music, why he’d rewritten the “Battle Hymn” not once but twice, to fill the house with the voices of the First Arkansas, and then with Soloman Howard’s bass amplitude as King, the support of drums like heartbeats and marching feet, the humming and assenting of the chorus, who answered, “Yes, sir! Speak it!” The music made a noise, pushing back against stagnation and violence. There is no alternative, except to do nothing, while the other voices around you are forced into deeper silence.

As Howard, a native Washingtonian, told me, “This is the place where I am, and I’m able to use my voice and my breath and say that we are all here. Specifically, with what’s going on with my people, the African-American community, that we have a voice. And specifically for me, I’m using my voice as an instrument—it’s my profession—but we have a voice, and we have a right to be heard.”

Appomattox closes with the four lead women and the women’s chorus, with soprano Melody Moore singing the role of Viola Liuzzo, the voting-rights activist and Selma marcher who was murdered by Klansmen in 1965. As the lights dimmed, leaving only the glow of vigil candles in the singers’ hands, Moore floated her rich voice upwards, achingly, into a long, soft note. The women surrounding her sang back the gentlest “ah,” sustained for all the world’s griefs and hopes. A note. A sigh. A long, long breath.

High-concept modern opera, elitist or not, has something to say about the work of social justice: that it doesn’t look as though it’s making progress, that it’s constantly repressed, and that we have no choice but to keep engaging the struggle. The music confronts the politics of omission, elision, and immobility by refusing to stop, refusing to go away. This is what democracy sounds like.

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