By Patrick O’Brien
First, composer Jake Heggie had a banner year in Chicago as his operas rolled out one by one. Now, it seems like it’s Tazewell Thompson‘s turn. In a four-month span, the director is helming two operas making their regional premieres. For now, we have Freedom Ride via Chicago Opera Theater; Blue, a collaboration between Lyric Opera and Chicago Shakes, plays this June.
Besides sharing a director, both Freedom Ride and Blue are separate takes on the African-American experience, and both are also scored by white composers: Dan Shore wrote Freedom Ride; Jeanine Tesori, Blue. (Though, unlike Freedom Ride, Thompson penned the libretto for Blue.)
Let it be known, though, that Shore’s been workshopping this piece for nearly a decade after being approached to write it at Xavier University in News Orleans, where he taught. And he’s been collaborating with the people whose stories form the core of the opera: the Freedom Riders. These were the activists who claimed their page in history by riding Greyhound and Trailways buses between Southern states after Jim Crow ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling declaring segregated public buses unconstitutional.
Shore shrewdly chose not to directly dramatize real people. Instead, their experiences are amalgamated into one Sylvie Davenport. (Dara Rahming substituted for Lauren Michelle on press night, and she’s the soprano who’s workshopped the role extensively. Consequently, it fits her very well.) At first, Sylvie signs up for one of these daring rides simply because she’s drawn to Clayton (Robert Sims, charismatic), the volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality organizing the protest. Then, in sharp contrast to Clayton’s “yes,” she starts hearing “no,” first from her own mother (Zoie Reams), then from her formerly gung-ho brother Russell (Tyrone Chambers II), who all fear for her well-being. As the date of the ride draws nearer, they find reason to fear for her life.
Day by day, Sylvie discovers a deeper, more profound reason for the ride. Mile by mile, she’ll ride through the valley of the shadow, but fear no evil. In this sense, the most apt descriptor for this new opera would be “stately.” Dramatically sound, yes. Certain to find a life beyond Chicago, for sure. (The opportunities for community outreach are boundless.) Moving, even, yes. Soaring…?
Shore liberally draws upon African-American spirituals and church hymns, and a full-throated chorus of professionals singing spirituals is nothing if not stirring. His own music is by turns jaggedly jazzy and romantic a la Leonard Bernstein, with a nod to doo-wop here and there. However, his own libretto — or at least where the prose, brimming with righteousness and fraught with peril, gives way to dewy, predictable couplets — could stand some more heat.
But Shore can bring down the fire and brimstone when called for. The best aria of the bunch, sung by one Leonie Baker (Whitney Morrison) late in the evening, is Sylvie’s last obstacle on the way to ride. Leonie is a stranger who doesn’t fear for Sylvie like her mother and brother; she’s deathly, contemptuously certain she’s a goner. “I seen people die. I seen my brother die,” she howls. The gut punch: “So why do I care where I sit on that bus?”
And, to be fair, when Shore aims for less dewy pathos, he hits, particularly with the role of Ruby, an outspoken (outsung?) Rider afflicted with asthma. Rahming’s substitution allowed Kimberly E. Jones to step up and score.
Shore’s decision not to depict the Riders’ prejudiced opponents that befalls the Freedom Riders is also a sound one. For one, it allows for an intriguing nugget of dark comedy, wherein the token white kid among the Riders, sweet Marc from Philly (Blake Friedman), is conscripted to play a racist as part of a drill on what they should expect. And near the end, with the aid of projections (by Rasean Davonte Johnson), Shore and Thompson allow Sylvie to board that bus with head held high and ride off into the annals of history.
While it’s almost certain to come back, this slice of vital history is only around for one more weekend. Let’s give Tazewell Thompson a proper welcome this season and hear what he and his composers have to say.
“Freedom Ride” plays just through Feb. 16 at the Studebaker Theatre, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. For tickets or more information about the great upcoming work from Chicago Opera Theare, click here.