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'On the Same Page' program features opera about Lincoln's assassination

– A free campus performance Thursday (Aug. 23) of a wrenching but humorous opera about President Abraham Lincoln's assassination highlights this semester's "On the Same Page" program hosted by the College of Letters & Science.

John Shoptaw, a poet and lecturer in UC Berkeley's English Department, wrote the libretto - or text - for the opera "Our American Cousin," which he calls a "national meditation." Eric Sawyer, an assistant professor of music at Amherst College in Massachusetts, composed the music.

Singers performing Our American Cousin
Janna Baty and Drew Poling perform a concert version of "Our American Cousin," the opera about Abraham Lincoln's assassination that will be presented Thursday, Aug. 23, at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall.

Their work relies on historic documentation and interpretation, but Shoptaw says its musical and poetic treatment produces a visceral truth about the assassination that was "almost a ritual sacrifice for our sins, to atone for slavery." The opera examines issues of the day, such as war and peace, race and equality, freedom and slavery, the loss of lives and monetary profit, patriotism and how to make sense of the deaths of 600,000 soldiers from the North and South.

The Thursday event, at 8 p.m. in Hertz Hall, is part of "On the Same Page," which this year centers around historian Garry Wills' best-selling book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America." Over the course of the year, there also will be courses relating to Lincoln's legacy and the Civil War era, as well as abolitionist/photographer Sojourner Truth and an anthropological look at how race-based slavery affects life today.

The opera "Our American Cousin" begins with the cast rehearsal and audience comments before the curtain rises on the play of the same name, a Broadway hit play performed at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. It was during the play that actor John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln.

A reworked version of the play comprises the second act. The third act includes a portion of the play and a reenactment of the slaying, the play's implosion and the chaotic aftermath among the actors and the audience, including Mary Lincoln. It includes a dead president speaking from the afterlife.

The work features typical operatic elements - arias, choruses, guilt and comedy - as well as contemporary jazz, black spirituals, period pieces such as "Hail to the Chief," and "machine music" of the Industrial Revolution.

"Music brings a new dimension of understanding and emotional feelings, even if they can't be articulated," Shoptaw said, adding that it augments and serves as a sort of springboard for the powerful feelings created by words.

An actor in an opening aria asks: "Are not the arts of theater like the arts of war? Each company musters its troops and parades them in sabers and plumes to the music of fifes and clarions."

An actor, who hired a substitute to take his place on the battlefield, reacts after learning his replacement was killed: "It smells of chloroform. Here's where I find you, Mark, so cold and chattering, in a shallow rifle pit."

"For me, the choruses are especially important," Shoptaw said about the vocalism of amputee veterans, widows, newly freed slaves, nurses, businessmen and others in the audience. "They help us talk about the country trying to come to terms with what has been happening."

Consider the amputees' chorus: "We laid down our arms, our knee caps and rifle butts; we emptied our barrel chests when that weren't enough. The newspapers speak of a final disarmament. How come, when we already laid down our arms?

"We wagered our lives to crush the rebellion, but we never intended to set no one free. They tol' us to seize any runaway contraban', but now can you emancipate three-fifths of a man?"

Or the businessmen's chorus: "The war was kind to us. We made a killing. You'll light your oil lamps with kerosene. Start eating from a can; you'll find it filling. We fortify our work with backs of green."

A little over a decade ago, Sawyer approached Shoptaw about teaming up on an opera. Shoptaw recalled his response, "Okay, what is an opera anyway?"

They settled on the Lincoln assassination. Shoptaw wrote the words, and Sawyer had veto power in cases where they interfered with the musical score.

The story has intrigued Shoptaw since his childhood in rural Missouri, when he and a friend composed a science fiction treatment that employed time travel to help save Lincoln.

"But you don't have to think long before you realize there's a problem with Lincoln in an opera - he just sits there," Shoptaw admitted. He found a solution in approaching the opera from the viewpoint of everyone in the theater - from the Lincolns in their presidential box to the actors on stage and the audience in their seats.

"I wanted to come back to the audience and try to understand what happened," Shoptaw said. "To do that, you have to think about the war and what it meant, the cycle of violence and vengeance they found themselves in."

Reliance on poetry, particularly in the third act, helps bring "a somewhat murky understanding" to the issues laid out in the opera, Shoptaw said, adding that it seems natural because opera is lyrically a mix of poetry and drama, with poetic flights and soliloquies.

Shoptaw conceded the obvious influences of poet Walt Whitman's elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," in and around much of the libretto.

"Our American Cousin" is easily accessible and "not only is it in English, it's in 'American,'" Shoptaw said. The performance reflects the influence of Mark Twain as much as anyone, he said, adding that "it's not meant to make a statement: How avant-garde am I!"

Shoptaw said he learned a lot about Lincoln while preparing his libretto, including how the president's anguish over the hardships and hunger faced by the soldiers he ordered to war often led him to sometimes subsist on just an apple a day. Shoptaw said he wanted his Lincoln to jar the public away from Lincoln as an icon on a penny, a face in holiday sale ads or on Mt. Rushmore, or the name of a luxury car.

When it came to Booth, Shoptaw focused more on the likely personal, rather than political, motivations of the assassin, and downgraded his role from terrorist to theatrical fool inadvertently aided by weak characters.

"My brother, Edwin, Prince Hamlet of Boston, and Junius, my father, poor Richard the Dead, will be peeling on posters forgotten and faded while I, John Wilkes, will still be resounding in lessons and legends louder forever and ever ." says Booth in the final act, in obvious reference to his thespian family members.

After the shooting, the audience concludes: "There was a passing blur, a churning, a blotch. Already it runs together. Blood will have blood for blood until every drop drawn with a lash shall be paid with another drawn with a gun .E pluribus pluribus pluribus."

And theater manager and actress Laura Keene laments: "All through these fratricidal years I've kept our theater alive .But I couldn't keep the war from breaking in. Should I have lowered and hushed our curtains, and waited for the fury to play itself out? . Was I wrong, all these years, to hold open our doors? Was I wrong to believe that art brings peace?"

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