A Civil War county comes alive in a new musical theater piece coming to the Virginia Arts Festival in 2011
Today's musical theater composers and librettists reach far and wide for their material. So the idea of a piece based on the Civil War isn't as strange as it might seem.
"Rappahannock County," a song cycle of 20 or so musical snapshots of the people and events that took place in one Civil War county, will have its world premiere next April at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. Co-commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival and Virginia Opera and two other performing arts centers, the work commemorates the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.
Last week, the creative team gathered in Norfolk to workshop the project. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell, together with music director Rob Fisher and stage director Kevin Newbury, listened as five singers ran through the piece for the first time.
Part of Gordon's challenge was to harness such a vast subject as the Civil War. He came up with the concept of a song cycle, or interconnected group of songs, and of using four or five singers with each one playing several different characters.
"Mark came up with the idea of setting the piece in one county, which was a great idea," says Gordon. "You get a picture of a time, and each song has a perspective."
Gordon and Campbell both live in New York and are friends and colleagues, but have never worked together. Though Campbell claims not to be a history buff, he was attracted to the themes – freedom, loyalty to Virginia, religion and piety – that motivated the citizens and soldiers at the brink of the war. "These are all themes that are relevant today," says Gordon.
"We wanted to create a work that shows how this war impacted a community," says Campbell. "Virginia was the most conflicted state about seceding. We chose Rappahannock County because it did not have too many major battles so we could write about the people."
Gordon also references the "whole notion of this Rappahannock River that separates North and South. It's the glue that holds the piece together."
In developing "Rappahannock County," Arts Festival Director Robert Cross met with Fisher, who has presented several evenings of Broadway music at past festivals. Fisher suggested Gordon and the other members of the creative team followed.
"It's a thrill for me to be working on something brand new that's of this artistic aspiration and quality," says Fisher. "This group is working at a really high level."
Gordon is one of the most sought-after composers on the contemporary musical theater scene, His opera "The Grapes of Wrath" premiered at Minnesota Opera three years ago. Campbell's lyrics have accompanied projects at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts outside of Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. Newbury has directed productions at Santa Fe Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
The recent run-through was presented with a minimal set and no costumes, but the structure of the piece came through. The Gordon-Campbell songs are made up of solos, duets and trios and the characters are slaves, soldiers, abolitionists and others who favored slavery. Though the slaves experienced hardships on the plantation, it also represented a place of security for them. The song "All I Ever Know" is sung by two slaves who are free and don't know what to be with their freedom.
"There are multiple viewpoints from blacks and whites," says Fisher. "Everyone was experiencing the same kind of loss, such as loss of a child or loss of a homeland.
"Young guys were going off to war then for the same reasons they are going off now – because they need a job or because they're heroic. There are so many different angles so there are no sides to take."
After he wrote the lyrics, Campbell sent them off to Edward Ayres, a University of Richmond historian and consultant on the project, to make sure they were historically and sociologically accurate. That school and the University of Texas at Austin also are co-presenters of "Rappahannock County" and will present the piece in September 2011.
Campbell believes audiences will find both Gordon's music and the Civil War topic engaging.
"Ricky's music is challenging but it's totally tuneful and emotional," he says. "And I don't think we've ever left the Civil War. I think the dialogue is still going on in this country. We need to talk about this and see how far we've come and how far we need to go."
- David Nicholson, Newport News, VA Daily Press, August 7, 2010