By Paul Smart
Culture, many of us still believe, has the ability to shift the driving forces that become history through thoughtful reflection, and the harnessing of emotion into cogent analysis. We’ve learned this through literary and art studies, as well as the various ways in which we are taught how the past influences and establishes present phenomenon. We note the ways in which film, television, and pop music mirror what we come to call the zeitgeist of an era. Or, what we wish were such, as with all the Woodstock Nation talk of the past year, versus the oppositional viewpoint that what rose just as strongly were things unleashed by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and others on a different side of history.
This piece, this month, is not so much about the sort of book that we can pick up at a library, online, or at a bookstore. It’s about the book of a new opera, Blue, that played a total of eight performances at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown this summer; as well as the revival of a much older opera, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, that played for one performance at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice last month after being reimagined and restructured by Houston Grand Opera composer-in-residence, Damien Sneed.
The latter, granted a rare posthumous Pulitzer in 1976, is a celebration of Black music, and culture, as a unifying force against the brutality of post-Civil War racism. The former, by rising composer Jeanine Tesori and writer/director Tazewell Thompson, centers on the hopes and fears of a young Black couple as they raise a son in Harlem who rebels against his father being a cop, while his mother fears for bringing up any Black male in today’s world. Tragedy hits when one of the father’s fellow officers shoots down their son.
The audiences for both works were almost entirely White. At Glimmerglass, a few left early, faces distraught by the sudden coming of current events into their curated world of culture. But everyone gave the new work—emotionally textured and richly performed—a long standing ovation. Moreover, Blue is already being called a contemporary masterpiece, and getting booked by city operas across the Americas and Europe.
“The times are fraught. Lit by lightning and divisiveness. Love, family, friends and the church are there when we need them. And we need them now,” noted Thompson of his collaboration. “We need a song to soothe our sorrows as we confront painful, personal truths. We need music in our lives and our children near to help us repair heartache; music to ultimately lift us and celebrate the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood togetherness.”
As well as culture, however taser-directed towards highly specific audiences, to keep reminding us of what stories are key to our experience, our history in the making.
Culture, many of us hope, day in and day out, retains the ability to shift what’s driving us into unknown narratives. It’s still the bedrock of zeitgeist, now and once we all get a chance to look back from a better place.