Opera Carolina‘s decision to mount a production of Douglas Tappin‘s new opera I Dream about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. must have kept many board members up late at night. A new opera alone with expensive production costs is always a gamble, of course, but a rhythm and blues/jazz/gospel opera? Would people like it? Would they even come to see it? If opening night at the Knight Theatre at the Levine Center for the Arts in downtown Charlotte is any indicator for success, they’ve got a hit on their hands. The house was packed with a diverse constituency I thought I’d never see at an opera – young and old, black and white, there together to take in this extraordinary work.
The roll out of Tappin’s opera, newly revised from its first Atlanta performances in 2010, coincides with the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. The Opera Carolina Orchestra, led by music director and orchestrator Carl Marsh, employed a 35-piece orchestra augmented with electric keyboard, guitars, and drums and the Opera Carolina Chorus with guests from the Johnson C. Smith Concert Choir. The opera is through-composed and sung in English.
Tappin is not American, but English, born of Jamaican immigrants. Musically talented and schooled early in his life in music theory and composition, he studied law and practiced for eleven years as a commercial attorney before turning back to his first passion – music. He and his family moved to Atlanta where he enrolled at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology to explore the “spiritual aspect of the writing/composition task.” His dissertation “That There Might Be Inspiration,” an exploration of transformative music drama as seen in the works of a range of historical and contemporary composers, surely laid the conceptual groundwork for his staged musical works. Tappin composed both libretto and music for I Dream.
Though the opera’s two acts take place during the last 36 hours of King’s life, other times and places are covered through flashback and premonition devices. The libretto is peppered with King’s thoughts and very human doubts about his mission to love and to lead his people through a pivotal time in history. The image of a balcony haunts him in his dreams. His circle of friends, family and activists, likewise respond to the challenges in their shared lives with a range of conflicting emotions. Full of ideology, the libretto’s overarching seriousness begs for careful listening.
The sets are minimal and are topped with a video screen which occasionally shows historical images of the Civil Rights struggle, culminating in Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The balcony of the Lorraine Motel where King would die appears over and over and is eerily reminiscent of a public scaffold.
Derrick Davis‘ command of his role as Martin was simply stunning. With his unwavering intensity and commanding presence, he was perfectly cast. Kenneth Overton as Ralph Abernathy and Victor Ryan Robertson as Hosea Williams were excellent counterparts and held their own in both solo and ensemble numbers – particularly the jail scene in Birmingham. Laquita Mitchell elegantly portrayed Coretta’s difficult life as wife to a burdened, exhausted, and often absent husband. Lucia Bradford‘s rich mezzo solos directed to Martin brought some of the evening’s loudest applause.
All aspects of the production were well-executed. The cast was uniformly excellent in their singing and dramatic depictions, with fluid transitions from scene to scene. The lyrics were easily understood due to their excellent diction and proper amplification. The scenes in Martin’s church captured well the vitality of the African-American worship experience. The scenes of violent repression, particularly the Selma march, were creatively stylized to underscore the resilience of the people who would not quit.
The essential question raised by Martin was this challenge to his generation: “Will it Always Be This Way?” The production’s title sponsor, Novant Health, has taken this question to heart and launched a leadership program for the “hidden” individuals in the Charlotte community who lack access to leadership resources and development opportunities. Opera Carolina has on its website copious resources for teachers and for anyone wishing to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. This production has resulted in much more than attending the opera – a continuing dialogue about what it is to be human and free. Bravi tutti!
Derrick Davis (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Victor Ryan Robertson (Hosea Williams, a civil rights leader)
Laquita Mitchell (Coretta Scott King)
Lucia Bradford (Martin’s grandmother)
Kenneth Overton (Ralph Abernathy, Civil Rights Movement Leader)
Douglas Tappin, Composer/Librettist
Daniel Goldstein, Director
Carl Marsh, Music Director and Orchestrator
Byron Easley, Choreographer
Kevin Depinet, Set Designer
Emilio Sosa, Costume Designer
Lucy McKinnon, Video Designer
Michael Baumgartner, Lighting Designer
Jeremy Lee, Sound Designer
I Dream continues through May 25. See our sidebar for details.
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