John Brown: Evolution of An Opera

scene from John Brown
Frederick Douglass (Donnie Ray Albert) speaks to a crowd including John Brown (James Maddalena). Photo by Douglass Hamer, courtesy Lyric Opera of Kansas City

John Brown, the opera, must have evolved; it certainly was not a product of intelligent design. No intelligent composer would embark upon a course that requires so many years and so many twists and turns. So be forewarned: this is not a “how-to” essay.

When I was thirteen my father wrote a play about John Brown that was produced on a national radio broadcast. Much later, as a composer, when I finally had the nerve to write an opera, I naturally thought of the old abolitionist. I asked my father if he would transform the play into a libretto. I was living in London at the time, and before I had a chance to work out the structure and operatic changes with him, my father sent me a complete libretto. Alas, the quality of his writing was not even close to what it had been in his younger years, so I gave up the project. I based my first opera on Moliere’s Tartuffe, writing my own libretto. Its immediate success emboldened me to try John Brown again, this time acting as my own librettist.

Because Brown is such a controversial figure I spent over a year doing research and holding readings of several drafts of a libretto. I consulted with the foremost biographer of John Brown, Stephen Oates; he agreed to read the libretto, correcting any unacceptable compromises I had made with historical fact. (Historical dramas must always telescope events, times and places.)

Finally I began the music. The first notes I composed were an original melody for Brown’s favorite hymn, “Blow ye the trumpet.” Why didn’t I use the existing tune? Because research in several libraries of old hymns did not turn up any melody that matched the words for the hymn quoted at the end of Oates’s biography, To Purge This Land with Blood. [Ed. Note: “Confessions of A Hymn Bandit,” an article Mechem wrote for the Spring 2004 issue of Chorus America’s magazine Voice addresses this issue in greater detail.]

The subject of this opera is so serious and dramatic—the story of John Brown is also the story of why the Civil War was fought—I decided to compose directly for voices and orchestra. Most opera composers, including me, usually write an extended piano-vocal score first, then orchestrate that.

I finished the full score of Act I in the early eighties and had it copied by hand. (Computers could not print music yet.) During these years I also had to make a reduced orchestral score for Tartuffe, as well as writing various choral pieces on commission to help pay for the copyists. By the time the Act One score and parts were copied and I was well into Act II, it became clear that hand-copying was doomed. My copyist, the incomparable Peter Simcich, was already familiar with computers, so I encouraged him to learn the new music notation program Score, and to redo Act I.

Meanwhile, time was flying by and I had some of the choruses from John Brown published as separate pieces: “Dan-u-el” and “Blow ye the trumpet,” both with G. Schirmer, with whom I had a contract for the opera. Composers might be interested in the nature of the contract I negotiated with the publisher. I furnished print-ready scores and parts, in return for which I receive 2/3 of rental and performance fees until I have recovered my expenses. At that time the split reverts to the usual 50-50.

Several years later I completed the full score for all three acts and began to make a piano reduction. That was the most painful part of the whole project. To reduce a complex orchestral score to a piano score is like trying to reduce a multi-colored, wall-sized mural to a 3×5-inch black and white snapshot. Only a lot harder.

While waiting for the opera to be commissioned I had an offer from a consortium of choral and orchestral groups in southern California to commission a five-movement suite from the opera, which I called Songs of The Slave. This was a godsend. It gave me a paid opportunity to try out parts of the opera and to use the recording to interest opera companies in commissioning John Brown. I already had a demo tape using my young friends Deborah Voigt, Mark Delavan, Helen Dilworth, and David Okerlund singing some of the arias with piano. Schirmer published the suite, which has received over sixty performances. Its warm reception encouraged me not to give up on the opera.

The orchestral parts of John Brown were extracted and I carefully proofread them. By 1992 the opera’s first version was ready to market. About time! It had already taken twice as long to prepare as Tartuffe had. The latter, like my two more recent operas, required about three years, including writing the libretto and preparing final scores and parts. The difference lies not only in the circumstances already described, but because of John Brown‘s size. The other operas have just a little over two hours of music; John Brown came in at three hours and a quarter!

scene from John Brown
John Brown (James Maddalena) comforts his son Oliver Brown (Patrick Miller). Photo by Douglass Hamer, courtesy Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

I knew John Brown was too long, but decided to put off the cutting until I had a commission and a guarantee of performances. I believed that it might be wise to get some input about cuts from the commissioning company. After all, I would be asking a company to commission an already completed opera. That’s not the way it’s usually done, I know, but I have seen too many commissioned operas fail because the composer was carrying out someone else’s ideas. When I write such a time-consuming work as an opera, I want to pick the subject and work it out in my own way.

John Brown is probably the most controversial figure in American history. At separate times, two large companies were poised to commission the opera but backed out when they encountered opposition to the subject matter. One opera director said that he would not be able to fund the work because his board told him that “John Brown was not a very nice man.” As if Boris Godunov, Macbeth and many other operatic subjects were “nice men”!

In 1993 I was finally offered a commission, and a workshop was planned for the following year. I made sure to get the artistic director to agree that after we consulted on how much to cut, I would have the final word on where the cuts would be. Unfortunately, during the workshop rehearsal period he reneged on our agreement, so after the workshop I withdrew the opera.

I had other work to do, and put John Brown away. A year later I looked it over with a more objective eye and was able to cut 45 minutes out of the opera quite painlessly. But that required an enormous amount of work not only for me but for the engraver. Everything had to be rearranged—vocal score, full score and all the parts. I put it off for a long time, until about 2002, when Lyric Opera Kansas City’s general and artistic directors asked to commission the work. Once again the engraver and I sprang into action. LOKC and I came to an agreement to premiere John Brown in 2006 to open the new opera house in Kansas City’s proposed performing arts center.

But again there was a delay. Funding for the PAC dried up. After a year or two of waiting, Lyric Opera decided to go ahead with the premiere in the old house to celebrate the company’s fiftieth anniversary in 2008. But the pit in the old house was smaller than I had written for, so I scaled back the instrumentation somewhat. I originally scored the opera as follows: 3333 4331, timpani, 4 percussion, harp, celesta and strings. I now eliminated the contrabassoon, two percussion players and the celesta. At the same time I cut another ten minutes, bringing the duration down to about 2 hours, 18 minutes. More work, more expense, but these were good changes.

As the rehearsal dates approached I encountered another problem. The musicians’ union had reduced by about twenty the number of players who were allowed in the pit. I certainly sympathize with players who have to work in cramped quarters, but it meant that my opera would suffer from string anemia: 9-7-5-4-2 instead of the 14-12-10-8-6 I had written for.

But finally: the glorious payoff. All the work and waiting were worth it. Lyric Opera Kansas City gave John Brown a magnificent send-off. Ward Holmquist, artistic director and conductor, and Evan Luskin, general director assembled a fine cast and chorus. James Maddalena was a great John Brown and Donnie Ray Albert a thrilling Frederick Douglass. The founder of the company said that there had never been such a prolonged ovation in Lyric’s 50-year history. Maestro Holmquist tamed the brass and encouraged the strings. Director Kristine McIntyre splendidly developed the characters and handled the large crowd scenes masterfully.

But there is one hurdle that we may never get over. As Stephen Oates writes in the preface to his biography: “Because [John Brown] is controversial, anybody who ventures forth with a study of his life—no matter how fair-minded and well-researched it may be—is going to encounter a number of readers, critics, and professional historians who have already made up their minds that Brown was either (1) a vicious fanatic, a horse thief, and a maniac or (2) the greatest abolitionist hero in history, and who will furiously attack any book that does not argue their point of view.”

Most of the reviews of the opera have been very generous. Paul Horsley in the Kansas City Star even described it as “The sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of.” But there will always be some viewers who simply cannot abide seeing a sympathetic treatment of the man they have been taught all their lives to hate.

As reviews continue to trickle in—the magazines have yet to come—I see several misunderstandings that I want to correct. First, it did not take me twenty years to compose John Brown. As I’ve tried to make clear in this essay, much of that time was taken up by delays and technical problems. Second, I did not rely heavily on folk music or common hymns. With the exception of “Once to Every Man and Nation” and a bit of “Let Us Break Bread Together,” the hymns, prayers, spirituals and “folk-song arias” are all of my own composition, even when some of the words come from an existing source. They were tailor-made to advance and catalyze the story. Third, the parallels between Brown and Moses, David and even Christ are not inventions of mine; they have been drawn by Emerson, Thoreau, and countless supporters of Brown ever since he was hanged.

I hope that my opera will help dispel the ignorance about the real John Brown. In the last few years five new John Brown biographies have been published, all of which supply the same historical and human context as I have tried to dramatize in my opera. But as I have stated in my Afterword to the libretto, “I have from the beginning been acutely aware that an opera lives or dies by the quality of its music. Here I gladly give up words and turn over the consideration of that enigmatic and timeless old man to the hearts and minds of my listeners.”