The Washington National Opera continues its 60th season on Saturday, Nov. 14 with the world premiere of a newly-revised version of “Appomattox” – an opera which focuses on the state of race relations and racial inequality in America, first as the Civil War comes to an end, and then a century later with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. negotiating voting rights with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Philip Glass, who first composed the opera in 2007, which in its original version focused solely on the aftermath of the Civil War, noted why he felt compelled to develop a revision of his landmark production.
“Fifty years after 1965, this wave of current events has required a new ‘Appomattox,’ he wrote. “Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon a radically new approach to opera where ‘art’ struggles to keep up with rapidly changing ‘life.’ In the next 20 years, there will be new twists and turns to the ‘Appomattox’ story that could require a new Act III.”
“Whoever won or lost the Civil War, whatever its appalling cost in treasure and lives, its profound underlying lessons have yet to be learned,” he added.
The opera, which runs through Nov. 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Northwest, features conductor Dante Santiago Anzolini and director Tazewell Thompson who staged the production – both in their WNO debuts.
Tazewell, who stands as a rarity in the world of opera as one of only a handful of black directors, and has directed actors that include Ruby Dee, Viola Davis, Eartha Kitt and Yaphet Kotto, commented on the scope of the opera and the nuances that make it unique.
“The opera is big, it’s epic and it’s a great story and both acts include famous characters that are quite recognizable,” said the Harlem-born director who was once a highly sought after boy soprano before his voice changed.
“The company itself is quite remarkable with 15 principal roles, Black and white, all of whom have remarkable voices, along with a chorus of 48 singers and an orchestra with 60 musicians. So, it’s a large, magnificent-sounding, impressive work.”
“What you also discover is that every single character, from King and Johnson, to Coretta Scott King, Robert E. Lee, T. Morris Chestnut, John Lewis, George Wallace and the recently-deceased Amelia Boynton, all lived, worked, fought, protested or walked the streets of Washington, D.C. That’s quite noteworthy,” he said.
One member of the cast, Solomon Howard, 34, who plays the dual role of Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., traces his roots to Southeast D.C.
“Living in Southeast helped me learn how to adapt to any environment – it certainly made me a more durable person and more comfortable dealing with different personalities and situations of uncertainty – skills that have benefited me given the commanding career that I have chosen,” said Howard, the proud father of a 13-year-old daughter and a resident of Arlington, Virginia.
“I have visited several churches recently in the Washington area to promote the play, including one near my old neighborhood, and they made me feel proud to be able to return as a successful, Black opera singer,” he said. “Some have even purchased tickets so they can attend an opera for the very first time. Experiencing this story, as I have said to so many other Blacks, will be like watching a story that many of us have lived and one that some of are still living.”
WNO partnered with NEWorks Productions to bring the story of “Appomattox” to 12 churches throughout the Washington region during the months of September, October and November, with vocalists performing spirituals along with excerpts from the opera.
In terms of the two roles he plays, Howard said he had to prepare in two distinct ways.
“King was probably the easier of the two because there’s so much footage that illustrates how he spoke and moved,” Howard said. “That said, I had to really focus because I’m not speaking, I’m singing, and to really portray him I had to bring color to the role and replicate his accent. People remember what King sounded like.”
“Douglass was harder because we don’t have any way of knowing what he sounded like or how he moved. However, that allowed me to be more creative. In many ways, King picked up where Douglass left off. Both had the fervor and the guts to approach inequality in America and sought ways to gain equal rights for their people.”
“The tragedy is that, with politicians attempting to strip voting rights from certain segments of our society and with the rise of incidents of police brutality against people of color, it’s clear that we still have a lot of unresolved problems when it comes to racial equality and justice for all in this country,” he said.
For tickets, visit www.kennedy-center.org/wno.