NEW YORK — We hear every day about adults and children who risk their lives trekking to the United States to avoid murder, torment, and starvation. When — and if — they arrive alive, we see them detained, shuffled around, and badly treated. No surprise, then, that Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell’s A Nation of Others sets to song the struggles of immigrants at Ellis Island on a typical day a century ago who hoped and prayed they would be deemed good enough to be let in. The work, commissioned and sung by the Oratorio Society of New York, received its world premiere Nov. 15 at Carnegie Hall.
Others have trod this musical ground: In 1998, Alan Louis Smith, for instance, composed Vignettes: Ellis Island, a song cycle introduced by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, setting words by Ellis Island immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.
Moravec and Campbell were both in attendance at the Carnegie concert, which, in addition to the venerable, well-trained Oratorio Society of New York and its orchestra, had six soloists plus a sextet of male “customs officials” who popped up now and then to ask scary questions of quaking supplicants, one of whom put a stone in her son’s shoe to disguise his leg imbalance. The prolific composer and librettist work both separately and together: In 2018, their Sanctuary Road, vignettes of slavery escapees on the Underground Railroad, was heard at Carnegie Hall, also with this chorus led by its director, Kent Tritle.
The style of A Nation of Others, which was postponed because of the pandemic, is comfortable post-Barber–tonal, lyrically appealing at times, and less so elsewhere. Deftly described by the composer as “opera without sets or costumes,” it depicts families and individuals, one after another, telling of unsatisfactory lives, hopes for a successful new life — sometimes assisted by a family already in the States — and fears about getting through Ellis Island red tape. (“Are you deformed or crippled? Are you an anarchist? Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”)
A Nation of Others is divided into three major sections: “We Are Here,” “I Carry,” and “The Strange New Land.” Tenor Martin Bakari, instead of an opening chorus, was sweet and strong as Tomasso, a young Italian excited to imagine a better life for himself and his wife and daughters, gazing toward the harbor: “There she is! The lady with the lamp.”
The oratorio, whose chordal style moved the score forward in a solid mass, was either too long or just seemed so as it followed the New York premiere of percussionist Robert Paterson’s very good oratorio, Whitman’s America, six movements of poems from Leaves of Grass, commissioned by the Gulf Coast Symphony. Triadic harmonies here had a new sound and its balances were artful. We should look forward to Paterson’s next work. But if both these pieces had to be forced onto the same program, they would have been more effective had the Moravec been shorter.
Oratorio Society soloists are usually good, in part because some are chosen from accomplished singers whose credits include the Society’s Lyndon Woodside Oratorio-Solo Competition. Chief among these this year was baritone Steven Eddy, whose tone placement was just right in the Whitman “Gliding” aria, “as a ship on the waters advancing.” He was appealing in Nation, too, as Connor, a likable, sensible Irishman fleeing the Black and Tans, fortuitously provided with a way out by a letter from his uncle Quinn in Boston. “In this strange new land, I will not be owned,” he declares. “I will find a better life for us.”
The section about things they carried — pillows, menorah, documents — was sung by women choristers, with male soloists, punctuated by the intrusive health questions of the customs sextet. The women’s “I carry nothing to my name, little of the past, something of a dream” was quiet and lovely, as was the wistful “May your next journey be a better one, a kinder one.”
A sympathetic Polish couple, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis and bass-baritone Joseph Beutel, have a darker view of Poland: “The war didn’t end with surrender: It will go on. Not with guns and knives but what it has done to our lives.”
In varied roles in both pieces, Susanna Phillips, a scrumptious soprano, sounded a little limp, aiming to fit in, which she didn’t have to, rather than dominate, the way she does at the Met. Maeve Höglund was stronger in her smaller roles. Bryce-Davis and Martin Bakari, both winners of the 2018 George London Foundation Awards Competition, were elegant artists, even as they portrayed downtrodden but still-hopeful supplicants at the Ellis Island entryway.
The muted solo ending, unusual in a choral piece, was given to to the confident Tomasso: “We will be happy here, In this strange land.” Tritle, probably this country’s Mr. Choral Conductor, feels and knows this repertoire like the back of his hand.