Theatrical song cycle tells a Civil War story

The idea of a musical about the Civil War conjures images of heartsick soldiers singing on blood-soaked battlefields.

That is not what "Rappahannock County" is about. Instead, the new theater piece set to premiere here in April as part of the Virginia Arts Festival will present the personal wartime stories of 18 or so characters from one county in Virginia.

A county where no major battles took place.

"I knew I wanted to set it in Virginia," said Mark Campbell, who wrote the lyrics. "Virginia suffered the most and was the most conflicted about seceding" from the United States.

The work, with music by Ricky Ian Gordon, was commissioned by the arts festival and Virginia Opera to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The other partners are the University of Richmond and the University of Texas at Austin; the piece will be mounted at both schools in September 2011. Tickets for the first performances at Harrison Opera House go on sale in early October.

The acclaimed, New York-based creative team spent the past week in Norfolk with singers brought in for a workshop production so the creators could see the piece staged.

"Which is huge for those guys, to hear what they've put on paper sung out loud," said Rob Fisher, music director for the project. Fisher is a Norfolk native with stellar credits as an orchestral conductor and Broadway artistic director.

On Thursday evening, about 100 board members, donors and potential donors were given a sneak peek at the work in progress.

One of the guests, Scott Williamson, who runs the Norfolk-based Virginia Chorale and Opera Roanoke, said he attended rehearsals through the week. He liked what he heard and is considering mounting the piece in Roanoke, he said.

"The music is a combination of the best of Broadway and opera. Ricky Ian Gordon is inheriting that mantle of being a great American songwriter," Williamson said. "He's been compared to (Leonard) Bernstein and (Stephen) Sondheim.

"He's got really good theatrical instincts, so he's able to paint vivid character sketches in music."

Five singers presented 16 songs Thursday night, with piano accompaniment. The final production will feature a few more songs accompanied by around 15 instrumentalists, Gordon said. In addition to minimal sets, costumes, props and lighting, Civil War-related images will be projected onstage.

During a rehearsal this week, Chesapeake native and rising soprano Aundi Marie Moore halted and wept in the midst of singing "Hallie-Ann," a song about a newly freed slave, now "contraband" of war, placing her dead infant in a coffin.

She didn't weep Thursday night, but some in the audience did. Afterward, Moore said she has no children, but imagined her dear mother in that situation.

"I sang his music as a college student," she said of Gordon. "I love his music. It has a musical theater feel mixed with classical."

Earlier that day, Gordon and Campbell sat in the lobby of a Norfolk hotel to discuss the project.

Gordon is a rising star in the world of new music that is a hybrid of opera and musical theater. Campbell said he also prefers that blend.

Gordon writes for the concert hall, opera, dance, theater and film. His opera "The Grapes of Wrath" premiered in 2007 at Minnesota Opera. When the composer's music was presented at Lincoln Center in 2001 as part of an American Songbook series, The New York Times raved, "It's caviar for a world gorging on pizza."

Campbell has penned the libretto, or lyrics, for numerous operas, including "Later the Same Evening," which imagined the lives of characters in Edward Hopper paintings. The Times called his lyrics for that piece witty.

Campbell's work has been performed at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. The two New Yorkers have known each other since the late 1970s but had never collaborated, Gordon said.

They got started in late 2008 by reading material on the Civil War and, in Gordon's case, watching films and documentaries.

"Rappahannock County" has evolved into a form that both call a "theatrical song cycle." That is, the work consists of a series of songs. Each song tells a story, but the whole piece is not a single, coherent narrative like that found in a classic musical or opera.

The lyrics often are loosely based on real situations unearthed in their research. Edward Ayers, an historian on the American South who is president of the University of Richmond, is creative adviser for the project.

Fisher said he couldn't think of a single "successful" musical theater piece on the Civil War. He's hoping this piece may fill that gap.

"Part of their success is that they focused on a narrower slice and found the universal in it," Fisher said. "They found multiple voices" to address "the universality of war and loss as experienced by all sides."
- Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot, August 1, 2010