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Opera Review: "Crossing"-The New Opera Based on Walt Whitman's Civil War Writings

Discussion in 'Book & Movie Review Tent' started by Pat Young, Oct 8, 2017.

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  1. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    crossing.JPG
    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.
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2017

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  3. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    I wonder if this the first full opera review to appear on Civil War Talk. I am guessing it is.
     
  4. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Here is a publicity shot of Whitman (center) and the patients:

    crossing chorus.JPG
     
  5. John Hartwell

    John Hartwell Captain Forum Host

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    Thanks for this Pat. Wish I could be there.
     
  6. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    John Wormley on the ground:

    wormley.JPG
     
  7. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Another publicity shot. This one shows Whitman at the end of the opera with a page of his writing projected on the scrim behind him:

    whitman scrim.JPG
     
  8. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Publicity shot of the hospital:

    crossing hospital.JPG
     
  9. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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  10. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Glad you liked it.
     
  11. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Program from last night's performance:
    IMG_4664.JPG
     
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  12. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    We went to the opera at The Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM:

    BAM.JPG
     
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  13. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    BAM was originally opened in 1861, but burned down in 1903. This is the second BAM:
    bam2.JPG
     
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  14. Brenal

    Brenal First Sergeant Trivia Game Winner

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    Sounds like you had a great night Pat. As someone who has never understood opera, or poetry for that matter, I think even I may have enjoyed it.
     
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  15. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Maybe. I get why opera and poetry are not everyone's cup of tea. But this was pretty involving.
     
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  16. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    The opera house is right down the block from one of Brooklyn's most attractive Civil War statues, the Fowler Monument, dedicated to the commander of the 14th Brooklyn Volunteer Infantry. I took this right before we went into the opera.
    fowler2.JPG
     
  17. JOHN42768

    JOHN42768 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    Sounds to have been very interesting
     
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  18. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    A lot to think about.
     
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  19. Cavalry Charger

    Cavalry Charger Sergeant Major

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    Keeping us in the loop again, Pat :smile: Thanks for the overview, and insightful review. It sounds like a very worthwhile project and I'm so glad Walt Whitman's poetry is being celebrated in this way, as well as the Civil War being brought front and centre as a means of exploration around issues that may still remain relevant today. Lincoln seems to come in for some harsh criticism in the context of the opera, and I find this intriguing. I suppose like most politicians he is accorded some responsibility for where these men's lives ended up. Definitely lots of food for thought.
     
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  20. Cavalry Charger

    Cavalry Charger Sergeant Major

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    My favourite excerpts:

    Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

    "It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
    I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
    Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
    Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
    Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
    Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
    Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d...

    What is it then between us?
    What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?...

    Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
    I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
    I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
    Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
    Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
    Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
    The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
    The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
    Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
    Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest..."

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45470/crossing-brooklyn-ferry
     
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  21. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    The criticism of Lincoln comes from the Confederate spy.

    One surprise in the opera was that the world outside the hospital was rarely mentioned. Even when the soprano brings the news of victory, she does not mention the assassination. The hospital is "near Washington" but it is portrayed in isolation. The poetry concentrates on the damage done to the men by their wounding and ways in which they survive and also on the extremely conflictive conscience of the Confederate spy. He sends information to Richmond that could lead to the hospital being attacked, yet he being nursed by the men in the hospital.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.
     
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