A Civil War opera: Rappahannock County

So, last night I saw my first-ever opera performance, and it was about…the Civil War. If you need a minute to let that digest mentally, I understand. I needed a minute too. Setting out to challenge my limited Civil War storytelling world view are the cast and creators of Rappahannock County, performing tonight and tomorrow at the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond.

So, last night I saw my first-ever opera performance, and it was about…the Civil War. If you need a minute to let that digest mentally, I understand. I needed a minute too.

When I think of the various storytelling mediums for the events of the Civil War, my mind easily goes to things like books or films. Even a play seemed within the realm of possibility, but an opera? I was a little bit skeptical. Setting out to challenge my limited Civil War storytelling world view are the cast and creators of Rappahannock County, performing tonight and tomorrow at the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond.

When composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell began the ambitious task of writing the music for this Civil War opera, they knew they had a challenge on their hands. How do you condense the enormous history of the war into one performance? They reached out to historian and president of University of Richmond, Dr. Edward Ayers. (I saw Dr. Ayers at the show tonight from a distance and had a mini “oh my God, it’s a Richmond history celebrity” freakout. Ed, if you’re reading this, let’s hang out sometime!) The collaboration with Ayers brought about the core idea: focus the lens of the Civil War onto one small community, a county in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to show the war’s impact through the voices and the stories of people who lived there.

Rather than present a linear narrative, they opted instead to provide snapshots showing the war from different perspectives and sides. Throughout the portrayal of the war, we meet over a dozen different characters from Rappahannock County performed by the five cast members who did an excellent job of nimbly changing roles between songs. Throughout the war, we meet Clement Davis, a Union sympathizer forced to flee the South; Silas MacDuffie, a rather unscrupulous embalmer; Lily Quinn, a recently freed slave; and many more colorful characters that make up the story. When possible, the stories and lyrics were pulled directly from first-hand accounts like diaries and letters from the war. It was clear that the creators took painstaking efforts to find not only a balanced view of the war from many perspectives, but also really interesting ones. Cast member Mark Walters sang “Making Maps”–inspired by the letters of one of Robert E. Lee’s cartographers, Jedediah Hotchkiss–telling of his conflict over his gift for making maps, knowing they’re being used for war and destruction. Faith Sherman’s song “I Listen” tells the story of a baker who sells pies to Union soldiers, only to eavesdrop and pass information to rebel spies.

In addition to the interesting stories and talented cast, special recognition should also go to the set, designed by Wendall K. Harrington. While the foreground was sparse and simple, the faint lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background acted as a projection screen that came alive with photographs and drawings from the period, along with other powerful visuals. It was tastefully done and helped the scenes and stories feel much bigger than the small stage they were set on.

The thing I love most about history (and musical theatre) are the storylines, and while I appreciated the variety of characters and songs, the snapshots-as-narrative device made me feel less emotionally connected overall. As one song ended, there was little time to ponder their fate before we were on to the next story. In addition, it was a little challenging for me to adjust to the operatic style of singing. Prior to tonight, the closest I’d come to opera was the Phantom of the Opera. But if you’re like me and haven’t been exposed too much to opera, I wouldn’t let that hold you back. They even display the lyrics on the screen at the top in case you have a hard time catching certain words or phrases.

Overall, I was really glad I went. I think it’s safe to say that this was the strangest Civil War-related thing I’ve yet participated in since moving to Richmond. And you know what? That’s pretty awesome. It definitely helped me gain perspective that I don’t think I could have found in a book or a battlefield. So if you are at all historically or operatically inclined, I suggest you go check it out. Opening night was last night, but there are still tickets for tonight (9/14) and tomorrow (9/15). It’s only a three-day run, so head on over to the Modlin Center for the Arts and get a ticket, or enter the ticket giveaway below. We’ve got a pair of tickets available for each night.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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