Posted1 Feb 2016
A Civil War Perspective
As Philadelphia prepares for the East Coast Premiere of Cold Mountain, Opera Philadelphia's Derren Mangum reflects on the significance of staging a Confederate-set opera during Black History Month.
In Mid-December, my sons had a music recital as part of a holiday open house at the Belmont Mansion, home to Philadelphia's Underground Railroad Museum. My family toured the exhibits, and we were overwhelmed by the first-person accounts of victims of American slavery’s cruelty. We listened to historians, dressed in authentic Colored Troops uniforms, describe the experiences and contributions of the Union's 200,000 African-American soldiers. And my mother, down from New York for her grandsons' performance, reminded me of our own roots; my grandmother's grandfather, as a teenager in Virginia, had escaped slavery to join the Union Army. As I thought about what his odyssey must have been like —my oldest is just thirteen— it struck me:
"We are about to present a love story set in the Confederacy, in Philadelphia, during Black History Month.”
While sharing in the excitement of this vital new American opera’s East Coast Premiere, I had a simmering concern about the need for more cultural context in our presentation, which finally emerged when faced with visceral references from my own ancestry. I fully acknowledge the authenticity of the story and perspective we will enjoy with Cold Mountain, but I'm reminded of the authentic stories and perspectives that we bring to the opera as an audience, and how they sculpt our encounters with artistic work woven from historical fabric.
I am particularly proud of Opera Philadelphia’s achievements in bringing diverse voices and stories to the operatic stage, whether through the contemplations on a jazz giant in Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD, the mashup of hip-hop and opera for the upcoming We Shall Not Be Moved, or the groundbreaking casting of Eric Owens and Morris Robinson in Don Carlo. But in our expanding civic role, we cannot rest when we present a piece that evokes our nation's greatest internal conflict, so saturated with conflicting emotion and opinion, and very much relevant to our social struggles of today. Though the African-American Civil War experience goes largely unaddressed in this particular work, it will rightfully haunt the perspective of many as they consider this opera, especially at this time when we traditional increase our focus on the historical saga of Black Americans.
Derren Mangum is the Associate Director of Institutional Giving at Opera Philadelphia.
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