Hardships In Sea Lanes: Slavery, Impressment, And All As Lyric Drama

Bernard Holcomb played Trickster in the On Site Opera production of ‘What Lies Beneath.’

NEW YORK — Eighteen months after its last production, On Site Opera boarded a 19th-century tall ship Aug. 28 for “What Lies Beneath,” an in-person, site-specific, and immersive music theater event. After eight seasons of productions staged in locations as diverse as a historic synagogue, Toscanini’s mansion, Madame Tussauds, and a barbecue joint, On Site commandeered the Wavertree, an 1885 triple-mast freighter docked at the once-bustling South Street Seaport, for a program about life at sea, with a cantata about the slave trade and its consequences as its centerpiece. Even with masks required of the audience and pauses for keyboard sanitizing, it was a joy to hear live voices again, especially with such a talented cast and ensemble.

In the fast-paced 21st century, we forget that well into the last century, the sea both connected and separated the continents; shipping was essential to commerce, communication, and passenger travel. When the Wavertree was carrying cargo, coastal populations looked to the sea for their living; in addition to fishing, whaling was a major industry, especially before petroleum became commercially viable. Ocean vessels equipped for battle — both official navy ships and pirate galleons — controlled trade routes, and involuntary impressment made sailors out of many who had other career plans. The high profitability of capturing humans to sell for slave labor led to the economic model known as the triangular trades, where raw materials, finished goods, and human cargo were traded among Europe, Africa, and the Americas. For “What Lies Beneath,” co-directors Eric Einhorn and Winston A. Benons Jr. created a narrative weaving these different threads into a mournful, affecting program that actually carried a trigger warning.

Members of the ensemble in On Site Opera’s production of ‘What Lies Beneath.’

The production was designed as a progression of vignettes staged across the 263-foot main deck, some to be experienced by smaller audience groups, but the threat of rain dictated a move to the smaller, tarp-covered upper deck for a more traditional concert setup, with the audience seated in rows and the musicians lined up in front. The expansive deck under the open sky had to be imagined, along with the placement and movement of the singers on stairs and railings above and surrounding the audience. Compared to the production photos, the visuals were disappointing, especially as daylight faded, but the covered setting enhanced both musical clarity and diction. I barely glanced at the provided texts.

The company filed onto the deck to the vigorous beat of a djembe (played by Rasaan Talu Green) and lined up along the rail. Bernard Holcomb stepped forward to sing “The unknown is my realm,” the Trickster aria that opens Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis’ Amistad, an opera about the 1839 slave uprising on a cargo ship. Robed like a village elder (costumes by Azalea Fairley) and sounding like an aquatic Loge, the tenor vividly personified the risks and unpredictability of the sea. The rhythmic intricacy of Davis’ jazzy writing sounded dangerous on its own.

Tesia Kwarteng sang ‘Maurya’s Lament.’

John Ireland’s wistful “Sea Fever,” with words by the British poet John Masefield, who apprenticed on a ship as a young teen, describes the irresistible lure of the seafaring life. Sung by two men from the ensemble and also repeated later in the program by two other singers, the song made a calming transition to “Ahab,” a monodrama with music by Juliana Hall and libretto by Caitlin Vincent. The charismatic bass-baritone Zachary James ranted frighteningly as the dying Captain Ahab, whose obsessive quest for revenge against the deadly white whale destroyed both Ahab and his ship. James’ bright, focused voice plumbed expressive depths, and his commanding physical presence, clear diction, and assumption of the character were so persuasive that I even checked whether he had acquired a peg leg.

The centerpiece was Damien Geter’s 1619, a cantata with narration about the enticement, capture, and transport of African villagers to the New World, where they were sold into slavery. Members of the ensemble took turns passing the mike to speak their individual stories, which segued into musical numbers. Each movement started like a happy reminiscence but turned sour as the anecdote led to the capture and confinement of the unsuspecting Africans.

“Red” described the pretty red scarves that sailors used to lure natives onto the boat that took them away — the ensemble flourished red kerchiefs in time to the music. Repeated interjections of “Sold” punctuating the sing-songy account of a grandmother’s stories had the rhythmic thrust of work songs. The jaunty Calypso rhythm of “Dance” belied the harsh fate of the villagers brought on board to entertain the sailors. “Trinkets” detailed how the the villagers were gradually tempted by shiny things to feel safe on the ship — until the gangplank went missing and they found themselves at sea. (Here the ensemble held up broken pieces of mirror, which would have reflected light had we been in the open air.)

Audience members awaiting a performance of ‘What Lies Beneath’ on the Wavertree, a three-mast freighter docked at New York’s South Street Seaport. (Photo by Susan Brodie)

At this point in the program came — puzzlingly — a reprise of “Sea Fever,” followed by another solo, Claggart’s aria from Britten’s Billy Budd, “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness,” the Master-at-Arms’ anguished soliloquy in which he vows to punish the title character for his (Claggart’s) attraction to the guileless young sailor. Matthew Anchel’s dark, powerful bass oozed quiet menace, until his final thunderous vow to destroy young Billy.

When 1619 resumed with a second movement titled “Red,” I realized that the interruption of the cantata was meant to compensate for the last-minute switch in format. Each monologue would have been performed twice, for half of the audience at a time, and “Sea Fever” would have accompanied the breakout groups moving from place to place, coming together for a through performance of 1619.

Zachary James sang the role of Captain Ahab in ‘What Lies Beneath’ with On Site Opera.

The final movement, “Thirteen,” alternates the text of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting slavery, with ironic reminders of slavery’s enduring legacy of systemic oppression, taking such forms as the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and redlining. “These stories are genetic, and so is the devastation attached to them,” says Shack Thomas, one of the enslaved.

The powerful ending of “Thirteen” segued directly into “Maurya’s Lament” from Riders to the Sea, the Vaughan Williams opera based on Synge’s 1904 play about the harsh life of Aran Island villagers. Originally the cry of a mother grieving the loss of her sixth son (“there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me”), the restrained sorrow made an effective coda to 1619, with the deft interpolation of the names of the slaves named in the cycle. Tesia Kwarteng’s rich mezzo-soprano throbbed with emotion, and the keening chorus allowed a strong musical closing. It was hard to break the mood for applause.

The able pianists (playing electric keyboards) were Byron Burford-Phearse, Dmitry Glivinskiy, and Charity Wicks. James Davis Jr. conducted and provided musical arrangements.