Long Leaf Opera is realizing the dream of Executive Director James E. Schaeffer, Artistic Director Dr. Randolph Umberger, and Music Director Benjamin Keaton to produce an annual festival of opera in English – mostly American. The event began on Friday night, June 15, with the world premiere of Strange Fruit and continues through July 1 with a full program of operas sung in English, chamber music concerts, and master classes. Details are available here. This review is of the Sunday matinee performance at UNC’s Memorial Hall.

The opera Strange Fruit is adapted from Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of the song “Strange Fruit.” The source was a picture of a Southern lynching published in a New York newspaper. It stirred a young leftist high school teacher named Abel Meeropol (whose pen name was Lewis Allen) to write the poem and set it to music. He wanted Billie Holiday, who was featured at the Café Society, a nightclub in Greenwich Village, to sing it. She was reluctant at first, but agreed to it. After the first performance, she described the integrated audience as being totally silent. Then one person began to clap uncertainly, other joined in, and suddenly everyone was applauding. It became her signature song. The song reflects in three short, vivid verses the awfulness of lynching. It embodies the history of America in the 20th century and specifically the history of jazz, swing, stomp, and the blues as they came together in Kansas City in the late 1930s and moved, with Count Basie, to New York City and then across the country. As a song and a book and now an opera, Strange Fruit is our history at its worst and at its best. It relates to the brutality of racism, segregation, and the horror of lynching, and the beauty and magic of black and white musicians gathering in closed clubs after 3:00 a.m. to jam together and to communicate.  It verifies the clandestine friendships and even the loves and tragedies of interracial relations of an earlier era.

The music for the opera was composed by North Carolina composer Chandler Carter. The score is a skilled potpourri of mountain folk music, gospel hymns, jazz, blues, and contemporary classical composition. Especially impressive was Carter’s ensemble writing. In some scenes, several characters sing their inner thoughts in their own idioms, yet all blend together in interwoven counterpoint with stunning effect, a technique Carter must have learned from Mozart. The libretto by Joan Ross Sorkin invites us to live the story of Smith’s novel in whatever way we feel connected to it.

In brief, Nonnie Anderson (a black woman) and Tracy Dean (a white man) have developed a secret, deep, and loving relationship. However, when she informs him she is pregnant, everything changes. Ultimately Nonnie’s brother Ed shoots and kills Tracy. Big Henry (a black male and Tracy’s friend), seen circumstantially near the body, is hunted down by white vigilantes, lynched, and burned. Nonnie could have saved Big Henry by revealing her brother as Tracy’s murderer but is persuaded through family loyalty to keep quiet.

In the opera’s climactic scene, Nonnie, her friend Dessie (Big Henry’s girlfriend), her sister Bess*, and Sam Perry (a respected Negro doctor) arrive too late to save Big Henry. They are joined by the benevolent white mill owner, Tom Harris, who had believed in Big Henry’s innocence and tried to hide him. In one of those remarkable ensemble scenes, Nonnie prays for forgiveness for not stopping the lynching while the other four pray their own prayers. It is masterful work by the composer, and it was so beautifully sung by the artists that it brought tears to my eyes.

In what seemed to me a somewhat awkward coda, Nonnie comes in with her child. the “strange fruit” of her union with Tracy as interpreted from Smith’s novel. Though sung in English, much of the libretto was very difficult to understand, sometimes from being overpowered by the orchestra, sometimes because of the complexity of the situation, sometimes possibly because of operatic emphasis on vocal production and not enunciation.

Jason McKinney was a standout in his portrayal of Big Henry. Denise Payton’s Bess was authentic and powerfully sung; this is a role that seems made for her. Nonnie and Tracy, sung by Erina Newkirk in a debut role and Charles Stanton respectively, made the passion of their relationship and the dilemma of their situation believable. Newkirk’s aria of hope at the end of the first act was beautifully sung and accompanied by some of the warmest, richest harmonic scoring for strings in Carter’s score.

Dr. Sam Perry was sung by Jai Lé Carlos Smith in his debut role. Ed Anderson, sung by Robert Hughes, also debuting in this performance, captured the cynicism and anger of his character effectively. Caryl Price sang Tracy’s mother, Alma. Niccolle Alexandre was Tracy’s would-be girlfriend, Dorothy. Nathan Jones and Kerry Jennings were two rednecks, Clay and R.T. Rita Addico was a fetching and effectively sung Dessie. John Cashwell is due high praise for his portrayal of Tom Harris, the mill owner. At the wake for Tracy, Tom voiced a striking setting of the 23rd Psalm with the women singing responsorially. It was part folk, part chant, and part gospel with some amazing embellishments woven in.

Completing the cast were Michael Kilbridge, accomplished as the itinerant preacher Brother Dunwoodie, and Jay Boschon as Crazy Carl. The choir was well prepared and added magical touches with their entrances.

The choreography was by Boleyn Willis, sets design by Doris Schneider, lighting design by Chenault Spence, and costume design by David Serxner. The sets were realized by Jim Nuss, and Laurie Johnson was prop designer. Terrence Thorne was the stage manager, and technical direction was provided by Butch Garris.

It took a lot of artistic skill and talent to put together this commendable production. It may have been hot and steamy on the stage and outside in Chapel Hill, too, on this Sunday afternoon, but it was comfortably cool in the welcoming Memorial Hall. Next weekend, June 22, at 8 p.m. and June 24 at 2 p.m., the Long Leaf Summer Opera Festival will present two one act operas: the world premiere of Zachary Wadsworth’s Venus and Adonis and William Walton’s The Bear. Both will, of course, be sung in English.

For complete information see the CVNC calendar.

*Edited, corrected 6/21/07, with thanks to an observant reader.