Virginia Arts recalls Civil War
For geography buffs the Rappahannock is a river that flows from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to Chesapeake Bay

For geography buffs the Rappahannock is a river that flows from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to Chesapeake Bay.

In history, however, it's more than a river; it defined a big stretch of the boundary between North and South in the Civil War. Now – the name of a county as well – it's being written in big letters on a larger map as Rappahannock County, a theatrical song cycle to be premiered at the 2011 Virginia Arts Festival on April 12, which – not coincidentally – is the 150 anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter that launched the Civil War.

The composer of the work is Ricky Lee Gordon, widely praised for the opera that he made of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath; author of the 30 poems in the cycle is Mark Campbell, noted for his collaborations with several significant composers. "The Rappahannock remains a symbol of the division between North and South," Gordon says. "And the songs are snapshots of life and loss during the war."

In making the commission festival director Robert Cross asked only for a work on the Civil War. What exactly it would be was up to Gordon and Campbell. "I couldn't see a big three-act opera on the war," Gordon says. "The challenge was to make the subject manageable – to cut it down."

Gordon brought Campbell on board, and they both started reading. "Virginia was so central to the war – and so divided!" Gordon says. "We decided to focus on just one county in the state: Rappahannock." The two decided on music theater as their genre, and Gordon thought in terms of a cycle of songs to be performed by a small group of singers, each of whom plays a number of roles. Although the final score is divided into five acts – one for each year of the war – they are performed without interruption. The work lasts 85 minutes.

"Although the poems offer no cohesive narrative, they must be performed without intermission," the composer says. "That would break the mounting intensity of the cycle." Campbell's texts draw on letters, diaries and other documents from a group of people – both black and white – who experienced the impact of war first hand. The goal of the creative team was a work in which individuals speak with intimacy. "But the personal is political," Gordon says, "and the political is personal." The piece has the sense of a lens closing in on a spectrum of individuals and their feelings around slavery and morality in a profound and poignant way. "Mark's libretto shows what everyone has to lose – or has lost."

A preacher opens the cycle:

"For slavery is not a sin,
It's sanctified...
By God!"

A map maker decries the abuse of his profession:

"Making these maps
Is not to orient a man,
But parcel to a plan
For spoiling valleys, for torching forests,
For bloodying rivers, for rupturing ridges,
Fields, farms, paths, groves, all lost–
Leveled into an ashen heap."

A soldier – unidentified by side – dies:

"And what the Hell for?
All I wanted
Was to die the Good death,
The noble death,
A death both brave and bold.
Not this slow withering away."

In a duet former slaves ask what the future holds, and a young black woman buries her infant child, while the dying soldier concludes:

"For fin'lly only cruelty reigns.
My heart is dead, my soul has left me,
So now let's finish what remains."

Rappahannock County is a work of great economy, but immense emotional breadth – and depth. As he completed the poems Campbell sent them to University of Richmond historian Edward Ayres, a leading Civil War scholar. Ayers served as consultant on the project. "He has been our godfather!" Gordon says. "He checked the texts for historical and sociological accuracy."

Gordon, in his understanding of the voice, is too often compared with Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Rappahannock County will correct that view and underscore the unique and original voice with which he writes. (Edgar Lee Master's 1915 Spoon River Anthology, a collection of free-form poems describing life in a fictional small town served Campbell and Gordon as a model.) The work is scored for a chamber ensemble of 17. Wendell Harrington has designed minimal sets that rely on projections for power. Kevin Newbury directs the premiere; Rob Fischer conducts.

Members of the Norfolk cast are soprano Aundi Marie Moore, mezzo Faith Sherman, tenor Matthew Tuell and baritones Charles Freeman and Mark Walters.

Rappahannock County is a co-commission of the 2011 Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the University of Richmond and the University of Texas in Austin, The Norfolk production will be staged at both universities in September 2011.
- Wes Blomster, Opera Today, 20 Feb 2011