CHICAGO ‒ When it comes to an inspiring if harrowing story, few top that of the Freedom Riders, the scores of African-American and white young people who risked imprisonment, injuries, and even death as they traveled across the South in 1961. Their challenge to the non-enforcement of federal court rulings that banned segregated buses was an important turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. So when composer Dan Shore, a faculty member at Xavier University of Louisiana from 2008 to 2015, decided to undertake an opera drawn from those events in 2011, his decision made a great deal of sense, especially considering the paucity of operas centered on African-Americans and their history.
What became Freedom Ride began as a 20-minute vocal work that a group of Shore’s students presented at a historic house museum in New Orleans. It slowly evolved through a series of workshops and other presentations, sometimes languishing as the composer worked on other projects. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya learned of the piece about eight years ago, and when she became music director of Chicago Opera Theater in 2017, she spurred the company to commission the completion of the 85-minute work. On Feb. 8, she led the stirring if wanting world premiere (the first of three performances) before a sold-out audience in the 691-seat Studebaker Theater in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building. Tazewell Thompson directed.
There is likely a very fine opera waiting to be discovered within Freedom Ride, but it is not there yet. The opera spotlights a fictional young New Orleans woman, Sylvie Davenport (Dara Rahming), who falls under the spell of Clayton Thomas (Robert Sims), a charismatic civil rights activist in whom she has a romantic interest. Even after her mother shuns her, her brother decides not to join her, and it becomes clear that she could be giving up a college education, she still defiantly decides to take part in the Freedom Ride.
There are many elements in this opera and debut production worthy of praise, especially Shore’s vocal and instrumental writing. (More on that later.) The problem lies in how these parts come together. The opera repeatedly felt rushed. Early on, for example, Sylvie is angry and resentful when she discovers that her brother, Russell Davenport, has become one of the first congregants in her church who has agreed to go on a Freedom Ride. Yet almost immediately afterward via one aria, she has totally changed her mind, a transformation that seemed hurried and not entirely believable. Late in the opera, just as the Sylvie is about to board her train, she is confronted by an older woman, Leonie Baker, who tells her to leave well enough alone and not stir up trouble. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the production, but the dramatic set-up is awkward and, again, rushed.
More problematical was the lack of a well-developed, convincing dramatic arc, with every bar of music, every moment in the opera contributing to the seemingly inevitable progression of the story. As admirable as the singing of the children’s chorus was, it was hard to understand how their first appearance contributed to the advancement of the drama. At the same time, every dramatic opera needs a foil, a villain that forces a transformation of the leading characters as they either triumph or fall in the face such opposition. Shore made the fascinating choice of zeroing in on the Freedom Riders and how they come to decide to risk nearly everything for their cause. But by doing so, he relegates much of the strife and violence that unfortunately was so much a part of Freedom Ride movement too far into the background, alluding to it but not really showing it. At one point, a bomb is tossed through a window. Clayton is injured by a mob that has apparently circled the church as he tries to get Ruby, another Freedom Rider whose asthma is critically triggered by the smoke, to safety. But the audience doesn’t see that. Why not show that nasty confrontation? It would be a far more climactic scene than it already is, driving home the fateful choices that the Freedom Riders are making and significantly heightening the overall intensity of the opera.
Shore chose to forego working with a librettist, and that was perhaps a questionable decision. While undoubtedly the music is the heart of any opera, the libretto is nonetheless key to building the story, shaping the characters, and driving the action. Just look at the vital role that Lorenzo da Ponte played in some of Mozart’s finest operas or the contributions Gene Scheer has made to such contemporary operas as Moby-Dick. It could be argued that some revisions, perhaps with the help of a librettist, would go far in beefing up the narrative, amping up the drama, and letting this opera fully attain its obvious potential.
That said, there is much to praise when it comes to the music. The opera follows very much in the Americana vein of such works as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, or Ned Rorem’s Our Town – pieces that draw on a range of vernacular musical traditions from across this country. Working at a historically black college in one of this country’s most storied music centers, Shore clearly absorbed much of what he heard around him ‒ gospel, jazz, and spirituals ‒ and liberally infused those influences into his writing for this opera. In addition, there is even a section related to a Jewish member of the Freedom Riders, Marc, that introduces some klezmer sounds into the mix, and another where a 1960s-style pop song can be heard. It is not surprising, then, that the score at times comes close to pastiche although it never fully becomes so. Perhaps most important for an opera composer, he writes well for the voice, including such memorable moments as a lovely trio for Laurie, Clayton, and her mother in which each voices their competing views on the young woman’s future.
One point that needs to be addressed is the whole question of a white composer writing an opera dealing with African-American history and involving a predominantly African-American cast. It is an issue that neither Shore nor the company run away from. Indeed, in the publicity materials for this production, Chicago Opera Theater released a copy of an email written to Shore that was critical of his participation. “You are robbing people of color of job opportunities and most importantly the need to represent themselves by creating Freedom Ride. This has been happening since Porgy and Bess and must stop,” the email writer states. In his reply, Shore said that he is not oblivious to these concerns and that he worked closely with fellow faculty members and students at Xavier in writing the opera. In addition, an early version of the opera was presented for a panel of Freedom Riders, who offered recommendations and enthusiasm for the project.
If the Freedom Riders support this opera and if these African-American singers and members of the artistic team were willing to be part of it, there seems little reason to challenge Shore’s work, especially considering the respectful and humble approach he has taken to this story. “I realize that I am incredibly privileged to have been given a voice and a platform,” the composer wrote in response to the email. “I am trying to use it to tell stories of meaning and consequence, and although it is very likely that this opera will fall short of your expectations, let us both hope that it will at the very least inspire and embolden others to tell their own.”
Tazewell Thompson – an acclaimed director and librettist who wrote the book for Jeanine Tesori’s opera, Blue, which had its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2019 – took a straightforward approach to this staging and capitalized on the dramatic potential of this opera as much as possible. The only scene that fell flat was the explosion, realized oddly with falling silver confetti, which was more confusing than anything else. While no doubt elaborate stage effects would have exceeded the company’s production budget, why not at least use a fog machine or two to simulate the smoke from the bomb?
Designer Donald Eastman’s no-frills scenic design consisted of three white walls that were suspended about eight feet above the ground, allowing the bare brick walls of the stage to be seen. The two suspended walls on each end had a pair of windows, and the wall in the back served as a screen for projections ‒ often real-life scenes from the history of the Freedom Riders that gave the production a welcome documentary feel. This bare-bones scenery combined with some folding chairs ably suggested the church basement where much of the action took place.
The Chicago Opera Theater put together a solid cast for this production, starting with Rahming, a sure-voiced soprano who capably conveyed both the strength and vulnerability of Sylvie. The role was originally conceived for the singer, who receives special thanks in the composer’s notes for her pivotal role in the opera’s development. But she was only to serve as the cover for Sylvie in this production and stepped into the role fairly late in the rehearsal process when the original singer, Lauren Michelle, had to leave for personal reasons.
Providing many of the production’s vocal high points was Sims, who has an easy stage presence and a round, mellifluous baritone voice and convincingly conveyed the magnetic appeal of Clayton. As mentioned earlier, the production’s big surprise was soprano Whitney Morrison, who nearly stole the show as Leonie Baker with one aria. This self-confident singer performed it with forcefulness and conviction, drawing some of the biggest applause of the evening. Other standouts included soprano Kimberly Jones, a Chicago Opera Theater regular, who brought ebullience and depth to her portrayal of Ruby, who dies in the explosion, and tenor Tyrone Chambers II, who aptly communicated the youthful innocence and doubt of Sylvie’s brother, Russell. The effective, energetic chorus nicely meshed with the main cast, and the children’s chorus, featuring participants from Chicago Opera Theater’s Opera for All program, turned in poised, involved performances.
Yankovskaya, who clearly has a flair for new music and the challenges that naturally come with it, provided a strong, animated presence in the pit as she closely supported the singers, propelled the action forward onstage, and drew the best from Shore’s score. Serving as the 25-member pit orchestra was the fine Chicago Sinfonietta, which has made multiculturalism a pillar of its mission.
There is already much to admire about Freedom Ride, and with some reworking and bolstering of the dramatic structure, it could enjoy a bright future in the opera world.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.