In the wake of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, it is the perfect time for an opera which tells the truth about race in America—Appomattox. Philip Glass, the internationally acclaimed composer, and Christopher Hampton, the British Academy Award-winning writer, have created a complex, substantive and deeply fulfilling work, which showcases the best and the worst in our country.
Philip Glass has said that he felt during the composition he was “chasing history”; the wonder of it is that the characters of Grant, Lee, Lincoln, LBJ, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are portrayed with depth and vividness, and the haunting music takes us on an archetypal journey into America’s excruciating racial history. Glass has said that race is ‘the Great American Story.”With his librettist Christopher Hampton, he has turned that story into a breathtakingly mature opera.
This production, by the Washington National Opera (WNO), is the world premiere of a newly-revised version, which marks 50 years since the Voting Rights Act and 150 years since the end of the Civil War. The original version premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2007. There are revisions to Act One and a new, extremely gripping Act Two. Conductor Dante Santiago Anzolini and director Tazewell Thompson triumph in their WNO debuts.
In the pre-performance discussion, Glass mentioned that the women carry the spiritual side of the story. At first, we see a stage full of soldiers singing “Tenting Tonight” a popular Civil War Song. Then Melody Moore as Julia Grant sings of how Ulysses has promised her this will be the last time war will disrupt their world. There is a real sense of Julia’s character and strength; Grant was devoted to her, and she was truly his rock. A later incident between Mrs. Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln (Anne-Carolyn Bird), regarding the essentially harmless conduct of Mrs. Grant’s friend Mrs. Ord, shows us how unreasonable Mary Todd could be. It can be found in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Books, 1986). Kerriann Otano as Mary Custis Lee enters in a wheelchair; she suffered from arthritis. As he evacuated Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent her a favorite easy chair.
Mary Todd Lincoln (Anne-Carolyn Bird) and her seamstress and friend Elizabeth Keckley (Chrystal E. Williams) join in the solemn yet hopeful introduction, all dreading the season of war to come. As Glass has said, “The people who know the most about suffering are the women.” “War is always sorrowful” they sing, as light streams in from the left on to the classical Doric columns of the setting. “This is the last time… let it be the last time” they continue. It was particularly painful and significant to watch this opening, the day after the Paris attacks, which Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of WNO, referred to in her opening speech, asking us all to remember those who are suffering overseas. One notices immediately what Zambello mentioned in the pre-opening talk, about the long, arching lines and romantic nature of the music. Glass has mentioned that in this piece he often used the orchestra to comment on what the characters are singing.
Act One covers the fall of Richmond and the Appomattox meeting between Ulysses S. Grant (Richard Paul Fink) and Robert E. Lee (David Pittsinger) to discuss the terms of Lee’s surrender. Fink and Pittzinger are beautifully cast, and Pittsinger has the gentlemanly carriage and elegant uniform one would expect. Fink, as Grant, resembles photographs of him, and captures with great subtlety his bluff manner and hunched demeanor. Grant’s drinking problem is alluded to, as is his propensity for migraines. Lee, the picture of Southern gallantry, behaves impeccably, but as his situation worsens his noble manner becomes harder and harder to sustain. Grant, flushed, bent over, ill-clad, treats the Confederate Army graciously as they surrender. Lee holds out his sword, and one senses that in another life these two men could well have been friends. Both have not really enjoyed the slaughter, and are glad it is over.
Abraham Lincoln gently tells the freed slaves not to kneel to him. Tom Fox’s Lincoln is presidential and acutely sincere, somewhat at odds with the often agitated Mary Todd, who is prone to terrifying dreams which reflect her fears for her husband. Elizabeth Keckley (Chrystal E. Williams) is a benevolent figure here; in reality after leaving the White House she wrote a tell- all that was not particularly flattering to Mrs. Lincoln. (Some say the two women reconciled later in life.) Frederick Douglass (Soloman Howell), in a scene which is echoed by the scene between LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr. in Act Two, tells Lincoln the one thing he wants is “suffrage for all free men of color”.
Frederick Ballentine is T. Morris Chester, a black journalist who was among the most talented covering the Civil War. He reports from the Speaker’s Chair in the Hall of Congress in the defeated Richmond, and again in a brilliant turn at the end of Act One, where he recounts yet another atrocity. Wilmer McLean (Robert Brubaker) has a unique place in American history. He was quoted as saying “The Civil War began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.” General Howell Cobb (Timothy J. Bruno) was one of the founders of the Confederacy. Here, he opposes Lee’s wishes to recruit slaves as soldiers, saying “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
Edward Alexander (Robert Baker) was a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He made the famous suggestion to Lee that the Confederate Army disperse rather than surrendering; “[T]he army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon General Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor.” Lee rejected this suggestion, and it is said that his civilized conduct helped to foster the reunion between North and South.
John Aaron Rawlins (Aleksey Bogdanov), a Union soldier, was a confidant of Ulysses S. Grant, and became his Chief of Staff. Some said Rawlins’ main duty was to keep Grant from drinking. Others said Grant was largely sober during the proceedings..
Frederick Douglass (Soloman Howard) and his companion Mrs. Dorsey (Leah Hawkins) appear as the first black guests at the White House, shortly after Lincoln’s second inauguration. This scene enhances the theme of voting rights which continues in Act Two.
The remarkable scene of surrender at the Appomattox Court House between Grant and Lee is deeply affecting. These two men showed a dignity and statesmanship that, despite their differences, made Appomattox a civilized ending to a long and tragic conflict. Present at the time was a Native American, Colonel Ely S. Parker of a prominent Seneca family. An adjutant to General Grant, he helped draft the final terms of surrender. At the time of surrender, General Lee stared at Parker for a moment, and extended his hand. “I am glad to see one real American here,” he said. Parker shook his hand and said, “We are all Americans.”
Towards the end of Act One, there is a moment of hope as the Civil War ends. But it is quickly shattered when T. Morris Chester reports on the latest atrocity. He has a ferociously effective aria, about an attack on black voters by ex-Confederate soldiers, at a contested election in Colfax Louisiana, 1873.
Even Lee and Grant, it seems, despite their fierce struggles, were defeated by the horrors of slavery and racial oppression. Yet we can be encouraged by this quotation, from General Lee:
“The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”
And a touch of humor from Ulysses S. Grant: “I know only two tunes. One of them is Yankee Doodle, and the other one isn’t.”
Act Two opens in a local church at the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was brutalized by police on February 18, 1965, and died ten days later. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a stunning performance by Soloman Howard, is giving Jimmie’s eulogy. We see Jimmie’s distraught mother, whom Jimmie was killed defending while on a peaceful voting rights march. “We are marching to Montgomery…” sing the mourners. On the balcony, they stand solemnly, in raincoats with black umbrellas. King mesmerizes them with his eloquence, and they voice their determination to assert their rights. King and the chorus movingly repeat these lines from Hamlet: “Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
In a scene which echoes Frederick Douglass’ plea to President Lincoln in Act One, we see Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Fox) receiving Martin Luther King in the Oval Office, because King endorsed a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of Jimmie Lee. The hoped-for voting rights have still not been granted. Fox as Johnson has other scenes with Lady Bird (Anne-Carolyn Bird) and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (Richard Paul Fink) in which his vulgarity (“those f***ing astronauts”) and unseemly bathroom habits (don’t ask) make him an irresistible comic character. It is remarkable how his language, utterly original, complements the music and sets an example of how exhilarating modern opera can be.
As Lady Bird, Anne-Carolyn Bird has some very gracious moments, which fit in completely with contemporary accounts of her character. Although Johnson reportedly did not treat her well, ordering her around in public, for example, Robert Caro, in his seminal work, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power – I (Knopf, 1986), writes eloquently about how her warmth and hospitality aided Johnson in his early career. Richard Paul Fink as Katzenbach, who became famous for stopping George Wallace as he tried to prevent two black students from registering at a university, skillfully depicts his sometimes demeaning duties and his efforts to retain his dignity and/or sanity while working for LBJ.
Robert Brubaker, as J. Edgar Hoover, who hated King and never stopped trying to get the goods on him as a philanderer and/or Communist, assisted by his minion Cartha DeLoach (Robert Baker) admits to Johnson that he sent a package of scurrilous tapes about King to his wife Coretta. Coretta, very well played by Chrystal E. Williams, refers to the contents as “mumbo-jumbo,” which like many aspects of the script adheres very closely to the actual events. As “that bastard George Wallace” Aleksey Bogdanov and Johnson have an entertaining scene together, in which Johnson, as was his wont, attempts to physically intimidate Wallace. Leah Hawkins as Amelia Boynton, a leader in the Selma voting rights crusade, and Frederick Ballentine, as John Lewis, who later became a Congressman, fulfill their roles with style. Kerriann Otano continues her fine work as Mary Custis Lee in a small role as LBJ’s secretary.
Many acts of violence against blacks are highlighted in Act Two. The terrible Birmingham Church bombing of September 1963, in which the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist church, killing four young girls, is one. The abduction and killing of three civil rights workers in 1964, is another. Members of the KKK, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, and the Philadelphia (Mississippi) Police Department were charged; seven of the 18 individuals were given minor sentences. The killing of young Jimmie Lee Johnson in February 1965 by Officer James Fowler takes on central importance. On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, civil rights protesters attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and were attacked by police officers with billy clubs and tear gas. On March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the marchers back to the bridge to protest, but by federal injunction they were ordered to disperse.
Whites who participated in the protests were also at risk. On March 11, James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister who had traveled from Boston to participate in the March 9th protest, died of injuries sustained while being beaten by white segregationists. Viola Liuzzo, wife of a Teamster and mother of five, came to help with the third, successful march to Montgomery, when the marchers were protected by the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard, the FBI, and Federal marshals. This took place on March 21st. On March 25th, she was shot and killed while driving a young black man. The FBI tried to insinuate, absurdly, that she was a drug addict or somehow involved with the young man. Melody Moore, as Liuzzo, has a critical and very sympathetic role in Act Two, and her singing is especially memorable.
There is a chilling scene between Edgar Ray Killen (“Preacher” Killen), who planned and directed the killing of the three civil rights workers, and State Trooper James Bonard Fowler, who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, towards the end of Act Two. Killen was not convicted in the first trial because one of the jurors said she could not convict a preacher.Due to the efforts of local journalists and lawyers, he was finally convicted on three counts of manslaughter in 2005 and sentenced to three consecutive terms of 20 years. James Bonard Fowler was convicted of the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, which inspired the Bloody Sunday march, in 2007, 42 years after the crime.
The dialogue is cruelly on target, the characterizations excellent. David Pittsinger as Killen has one of the most difficult transitions in the double casting, as he played Robert E. Lee in Act One. He enters in a wheelchair in an orange jumpsuit, calling to mind Hannibal Lecter, and his lack of remorse is terrifying. Timothy J. Bruno as Fowler seems to admire his fellow murderer, and both men typify the dark heart of extreme racism. This scene is central to the opera, because it shows us how tragically racism recurs again and again, and how truly evil it is.
Act Two, like Act One, has many marvelously theatrical moments. A stirring “Hallelujah” sung by MLK and the protesters. Johnson explaining his horror at the racist treatment his cook, Zephyr Wright, received in the South. There is a touching moment when Viola Liuzzo attempts to warn the Kings of danger. As the Birmingham bombing assured the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it is said that Liuzzo’s death hastened the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited state and local governments from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination.
The women return to sing a sweet, melodic coda at the end of Act Two, looking hopefully to the future.
The set, by Donald Eastman, is beautifully serene and peaceful, a white balcony which stands above Doric columns, suggesting—the White House, a church, or any type of public gathering place. Two flags are used effectively; a large Confederate flag as the backdrop to Lee’s quarters, and a Union flag behind Grant’s office. Costume Designer Merrily Murray-Walsh’s work is exceptional, from the delicious contrast between Lee’s handsome uniform and Grant’s unsightly garb, to the appealing outfits of the women, especially Mary Todd Lincoln. Lighting by Robert Wierzel is used with great skill to differentiate the various settings. The quality of the light, as it falls on the characters, has an almost spiritual radiance.
In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s “coverage formula.” States are no longer required to get federal clearance before making changes in voting laws or practices. Philip Glass cites the attempts to take the teeth out of the 1965 Voting Rights acts, with the new voting restrictions in many states, Christopher Hampton notes the shooting in Ferguson, “emblematic of so many others.”
Delays in sentencing. Police shootings. Voter suppression. These sad realities have deep roots in our history. Appomattox, a great work of art, lives up to the very highest musical and artistic standards. As we survey the dispiriting headlines, it is worth remembering that art has a key role to play in the moral life of a society. Appomattox is the living proof.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with one 25-minute intermission.
Appomatox plays through November 22, 2015 at Washington National Opera performing in The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.
David Friscic reviews ‘Appomattox’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.
‘Dangereuse’: ‘Appomattox’ at The Kennedy Center reviewed by Sophia Howes.
Magic Time! ‘Appomattox’ at Washington National Opera by John Stoltenberg.