Crossing: An Opera Composed, written, and conducted by Matthew Aucoin Directed by Diane Paulus “What is it then between us?” The question Walt Whitman asks at the opening of this opera, from his great poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, recurs throughout the next 90 minutes. What separates and what joins us together as people? In his poem of commuting, what could be more prosaic than going and coming from work, he observed that he had at one time or another sat in the same seat, seen the same sights, and even breathed the same air as those he saw around him on the boat. How are we separated and how do we cross over? The opera begins with words, but as the poetry pours forth from baritone Rod Gilfry playing Whitman, the scrim behind him lifts to reveal severely injured Union soldiers in a sparse hospital south of Washington. Whitman sings that he came to nurse his wounded brother, but stayed on for reasons that he is still trying to discover. Whitman comforts a dying soldier and brings chocolate and beer to amputees and others with broken bodies and souls. The wounded men appear to be in a hospital world cut-off from the rest of America. Though they are constantly awaiting news of the war, on only three occasions does word from the outside world arrive. The first time is when a black patient returns from Washington to dash the hopes of his comrades who believe that the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg will bring a swift end to the war. When the physically shattered patients crowd around bass-baritone Davóne Tines of the USCT, he gives them the heartbreaking news of defeat at Chickamauga. Apart from Gilfry, Tines gives the outstanding performance of the supporting cast. His second song, a set of violent visions he had when he was escaping slavery, is the high-point of this opera. News of the Union defeat plunges the patients into a depression, but Whitman helps them rescue themselves through the telling of their own stories. One old man in a wheelchair is revealed to be only 19 years old when he sings of sharing a night of love before he ran off to the army at 17. His brief, and perhaps last, night of desire fulfilled is beautifully portrayed by the company’s ballet troupe. Into this small community of pain and healing, a new arrival enters. John Wormley is a Confederate spy disguised as a Union soldier, but nursing a genuine wound in his leg and soul. Tenor Alexander Lewis portrayed this complex and tormented character with an admirable emotional range, but with the weakest vocal performance of the principals in the cast. Wormley and Whitman’s sexual attraction form a minor focus of the final part of the opera. Wormley sows discontent in the hospital by stating the obvious. Whatever the good of the war, the men within the hospital’s walls have already paid more than it could possibly be worth. This truth strikes them in the face and they stand up singing “We are the cost of war” and recognizing that their lives are the money that has been paid as the price for victory. Wormley insists that their bodies are now too wrecked to still contain a soul and that they have traded their lives for Lincoln’s lies. Against this hard-edged realism, Whitman offers care, love, and the poetry of the patients’ own lives. The maleness of the opera is only penetrated at the end when soprano Jennifer Zetlan arrives to tell the soldiers that the war has ended. This means victory, but also the dissolution of the hospital and the scattering of the men. They had waited so long for this news, yet it leaves them more numb than joyful. They have lived apart from the world of peace and health and women for so many months. Now they return to civilian life broken remnants of the young men they once were. The music was performed by A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra. Much of it is in the post-modern style. It was somber, but beautiful in the words of one of Michele’s friends. As a bonus, the composer, 27 year old Matthew Aucoin, was at the opera house Saturday night to conduct he and came on stage to take a bow. This is a moving opera about words and wounds and men. Patrick Young is the Senior Opera Critic for Civil War Talk.