Composer spent 20 years writing opera about abolitionist John Brown

[2 May 2008]

By Paul Horsley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Shortly after 10 p.m. on May 24, 1856, John Brown and seven other men, including four of his sons, stole into the night near Osawatomie, Kan., dragged five pro-slavery settlers from their cabins and hacked them to death.

JOHN BROWN The Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents a world premiere of an opera in three acts by Kirke Mechem. May 3-11 at the Lyric Theatre, 11th and Central, Kansas City, Mo. Tickets: $37-$75 (816-471-7344 or

The Pottawatomie Massacre, as it came to be called, and Brown’s later raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in Virginia began a headlong series of events that led to the bloodiest war fought on U.S. soil.

“Whether he actually wielded the sword himself, he led the party and he gave the order,” said University of Kansas historian Jonathan Earle about the Kansas raid.

More than 150 years after Brown’s hanging for the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859, Americans are still trying to figure out how they feel about the man whose pugilistic opposition to slavery makes him one of the most venerated historical figures among African-Americans.

“John Brown’s brain remains tough to crack,” Earle wrote in his recent book, “John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry: A Brief History With Documents.” “Was he good or evil?”

Who was John Brown? And how can we come to an understanding of him that is as complex as the man himself?

One way is through opera, says composer Kirke Mechem, who has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to creating a musical portrait of Brown that is fair and accurate yet emphatic in its portrayal. Brown was a heroic figure, Mechem said—a flawed one, perhaps, but one whose belief that dire actions are sometimes necessary to avoid worse evil still rings true for many.

Mechem’s goal in his opera is “not so much to make John Brown a hero,” he said, “but to show that any time you have a terrible injustice, you’ll have a John Brown rise up and fight against it in any way that he can.”

On Saturday the Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents the world premiere of the Wichita, Kan., native’s “John Brown,” a labor of love by a composer who has unabashedly admired Brown since childhood.

The opera comes at a time when the notion of violence committed in response to perceived injustice is one of today’s most pressing issues.

“You don’t just do operas about the nice couple who live next door,” said Lyric general director Evan Luskin, adding a caveat:

“We are not taking sides in the debate about John Brown. We’re presenting his life and what he stood for, and the audience can listen and decide what they think.”

The hard part about “knowing” John Brown, Earle said, is that his reputation in the public and even scholarly consciousness has ebbed and flowed according to the tenor of the times.

“Even while he was alive, it was hard to find two people to agree on John Brown and what he represented. Among African-Americans he has always been viewed as a hero. For white Americans he careens from being a sort of political hero to being a murderer and a horse thief.”

After the Civil War, Brown was universally blamed for “getting us into this mess,” Earle said.

But in the turbulent 1960s he was admired by those who sought violence to change an American system they deemed corrupt—only to be discredited as a “terrorist” after 9/11. (It didn’t help that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh admired Brown.)

Today he’s seen by many historians as a passionate, single-minded and perhaps tortured man who believed America could simply not exist with such an evil as slavery at its core.

“Immortal legend, moral crisis, struggle for freedom—these have always been the stuff of opera,” Mechem wrote in a preface to the score.

Like most great operatic characters, Brown is larger than life, and “opera is the ideally extravagant medium to present the action and passion of the national struggle over slavery.”

“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” sang James Maddalena, his trombone-like baritone filling the Lyric Opera’s cavernous rehearsal studio.

“Now they shall pay! Innocent blood shall now be avenged!”

Being John Brown is a big task for any singer, but Maddalena is used to such challenges: He first made his mark in opera as Richard Nixon in the 1987 world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.”

Unlike Nixon, though, Maddalena’s Brown is neither paranoid nor self-doubting.

“I don’t think John Brown had any doubts ever about the rightness of his cause,” said the baritone. “He’s definitely heroic, in any sense of the word: Someone who is willing to die for his fellow man, that’s the ultimate Christian gesture. But he was also willing to take human life to do it.”

Mechem’s opera tries to compress essential moments in Brown’s life into a compact drama, beginning in Lawrence and moving to the Kansas killings. A scene in Concord, Mass., shows Emerson and Thoreau rallying to Brown’s cause. Act 3 breaks loose with a bold, strident Harper’s Ferry scene and a trial scene leading to murmurs of war.

Throughout the drama, Mechem has tried to convey Brown’s unflinching belief by writing his vocal part in a stark and declamatory style that contrasts with the more flowing styles of the other characters. (Frederick Douglass’ music is more eloquent and that of the “love couple” Oliver Brown and Martha Barber is more romantic.)

But Mechem’s score also brings out Brown’s tender side in scenes with family and Douglass.

“He had a very gentle side,” Maddalena said. “He didn’t want to take innocent life but just those of the people who opposed him. He thought of it as a form of Augustinian defense.”

Maddalena’s job as a singer-actor is to get beyond the historical record and create a real person.

“Whenever you see a picture of John Brown, he looks that way because he’s posing for a picture: He looks like if he tried to smile his whole face would crack. I have to try to get to what he was like when he was not posing.”

In nearly all the many photographic representations, the image of Brown the fighter prevails.

Possibly the earliest is a daguerreotype acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2007 and on display in the new Bloch Building. Dating from around 1846, it was taken by Augustus Washington, one of the few African-American photographers of the day.

“When I saw it I thought, wow,” said Jane L. Aspinall, the Nelson’s assistant curator of photography.

What’s unusual about the 3-by-4-inch image—purchased at auction for $97,750—is its expressive, defiant pose, something rare in early daguerreotypes.

“He’s very self-assured, very confident. He engages the viewer with his intense stare. He kind of has a bit of a smile, even a smirk about him. He seems to say, stand up and change things, and if you don’t I will.”

Why African-Americans had a different view of John Brown than whites is more complex than you might think.

“John Brown’s story is a world story,” said African-American artist Sonie Ruffin, director of the Robert Frazier Gallery. “You have to understand the lives of people that he has touched throughout the world.”

Ruffin has organized an exhibit at her gallery, “An Evolution in Perspective,” for which 12 artists have created works inspired by Brown’s legacy.

She said history repeatedly teaches us that “violence is not a positive communicator, and unfortunately when you start with violence your life ends that way.” But Brown was a natural outgrowth of the violence of slavery, said Ruffin, whose great-grandmother was born a slave.

“At that time, those were the only measures that would captivate the attention of the slave masters. That was the only tool Brown had in his means.”

For Donnie Ray Albert, who sings the part of Douglass, Brown was a man who felt backed up against the wall but whose motives were admirable.

“It’s more than stubbornness,” he said. “It’s a unique, ingrained humanistic value that he sees in all mankind. ... We need more John Browns out there to stand up for what the Constitution is all about.”

For blacks, regardless of their views of violence, Brown “was a part of history that contributed in a positive manner and brought awareness to the enslavement of other people. He was considered a fighter for the rights of African-Americans.”

Still, Brown’s motives were perhaps not entirely altruistic, Ruffin said, for he had torments of his own.

“His fight was to get that angst off of him, to remove that angst off of his community,” Ruffin said. “He felt responsible for it.”

That notion is borne out by a striking comment by former slave Douglass. Brown was a man who, “though a white gentleman, is in sympathy a black man,” Douglass wrote, “and as deeply interested in our cause as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

There’s evidence that ample personal trauma went into Brown’s fervor. His father, though a foe of slavery, was a stern Calvinist who rarely spared the rod.

Moreover, as a 12-year-old Brown observed a gruesome event that marked him for life: While driving cattle in Michigan for his father, he took refuge in the home of a man with a slave Brown’s age.

Brown watched in horror as the master savagely beat the boy with an iron shovel.

“He was a very smart boy,” Mechem said. “That stayed with him all his life, how unjust that was.”

Moreover, Brown’s father socialized with blacks, and he raised his children to regard them as equals.

“Brown had absolutely no racism, no color phobia at all,” Mechem said. “This endeared him to blacks: They could see it right away.”

Mechem’s father, also named Kirke and a former director of the Kansas Historical Society, raised his son similarly and instilled in him an admiration for Brown’s principles.

At 13, Mechem first caught the Brown bug listening to his father’s radio play about Brown on the national airwaves, one of the first positive portrayals of the abolitionist since the Civil War.

“The thing that connects me so emotionally with John Brown is this hatred of injustice,” Mechem said. “I was always taught that.”

Brown’s image in art has continued to waver—from his portrayal as a near-madman in Hollywood films and novels to John Steuart Curry’s gigantic mural in the Kansas Statehouse, “A Tragic Prelude.”

That famous painting of Brown—Bible in one hand and rifle in the other, eyes burning in their sockets—is hard to get out of one’s head.

But Mechem’s opera might contribute to a fairer, more humanized portrayal of the man.

“Kirke worked hard to try to keep the truth in the center,” said Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist, “and project the issues and events in as factual a way as possible in an artistic work.”

For Mechem, the ambivalence of Brown’s story is ideal for opera because “music begins where words leave off. Emotion, suffering, beauty, love—opera can do that better than anything can.”

Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas, has special reason to look forward to Mechem’s opera, which she will attend. She’s John Brown’s great-great-great-granddaughter, descended from Brown’s daughter Anne.

Mecoy is one of the few members of her branch of the family who is proud of being related to Brown. (Her father even tells stories of his family burning a box of Brown memorabilia when he was a boy.)

“He (Brown) really thought that he was doing the right thing,” said Mecoy, who was 16 before she knew she was related

“It was something my family just didn’t talk about,” said Mecoy, who remembers family stories about Anne Brown annotating her children `s history-book accounts of Brown’s life with phrases like, “This is not how it happened.”

“I may not condone his actions, but what he wanted for the world is what I want for the world,” Mecoy said. “He was firmly trying to make the world a better place.”

If there is a modern consensus, it is that, with the Revolutionary War fresh in America’s memory, Brown viewed his actions as ultimate patriotism for a nation he believed in.

He’d hoped to achieve his aims peacefully but saw pacifism failing.

“What price would you pay for freedom?” Ruffin asked. “What price would you pay if you saw a little boy being beaten within an inch of his life?

“It’s the 1850s: Would you be willing to put your entire life on the chopping block?”

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