Shirley Thompson on Rappahannock County


Rappahannock County
A Discussion between Karen Hoy,
Andrey Kasparov and John Campbell

Rappahannock County is a song cycle of two dozen speakers, ordinary people who sing of their beliefs and griefs during the Civil War. The world premiere was April 12 at Harrison Opera House in Norfolk on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war. Five singers gave voice to the many characters: the slave roles were sung by two black performers and the three white performers created the others. The war was the only connection of the characters in this semi-staging with the orchestra on the stage behind a scrim where period images were projected.

Karen Hoy: I enjoyed the evening and I am looking forward to the next production.

John Campbell: It was interesting to see how the librettist Mark Campbell limned the period through the voices of so many residents of north west Virginia. The diversity: slaves versus slaveholders and a minister who articulated the slaveholder's religious justification versus whites who opposed secession. I found the text offered the composer Ricky Ian Gordon the chance to create depth in the musical settings. I kept waiting for it to happen but it never did.

Hoy: Yes, this performance could have used more intensity. And people who went to the production expecting music theater came away disappointed. Musical theater today is over-the-top with flying horses, giant puppets and all kinds of endless business on stage. The intimate form of art song was never meant for such histrionics. At its best, art song is intense, not grandiose. This production was somewhere in the middle, perhaps still finding it’s way for both the composer and performers.

Campbell: I agree. My difficulty was with the lack of intensity in the musical settings. Neither the voices nor the seventeen piece orchestra created for me a feeling of emotional connection. Intellectually, the text poked holes in the Southern myths of happy darkies and a war over states rights and other fictions that papered over the horrors of this war.

Hoy: More contrast both musically and dramatically would help. The best art song singers can capture the audience with real intensity without bombast but that takes time and experience. Even seasoned performers can’t always do that on opening night of a new show. We saw some wonderfully talented singing actors that evening but it still didn’t quite take off. The history of theater and opera tells us this happens quite often. Composers are seeing the finished product for the first time too and often need to “tweek” a bit and change/rearrange things. Politics today reveals our demand for immediate perfection but reality just doesn’t work that way.

Campbell: I spoke with the mother of a musician friend who said she wouldn't want to see it more than once. It's a bad sign for me when mid-way through I reach the point of hoping it will soon be over.

Hoy: I never felt that way…I’d love to see it again. Yes, I too would have liked more intensity and more emotional contrast for such an important and dramatic historical event. Perhaps in time Mr. Gordon will make some changes in Rappahannock County.

Campbell: Some other responses to the work: several major newspapers covered the performance. Heidi Waleson writing in the Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2011) found nothing especially new in the themes or the feelings expressed . . . “Mr. Gordon's edgeless music goes for surface prettiness and sentimentality instead of grit.” My response: it is as if the South captured the two Yankees – Campbell and Gordon – and seduced them into a bucolic view of slavery and a terrible war.

Andrey Kasparov: I found the music to be a very attractive amalgam of American styles, both classical and music theatre, which was befitting such a deeply-rooted American subject. Perhaps it was not dramatic enough, but this is Ricky Ian Gordon's personality, not a deficiency.

Hoy: From my studio teaching I’m familiar with Mr. Gordon’s art songs and I don’t find them “edgeless” or superficial but, yes, maybe not intense. They find a good place at the end of a recital but perhaps not after intermissions were you’re ready for depth. To me they are true “crossover” art songs, thought provoking and reflecting well our time and culture.

Kasparov: Perhaps it should not have been marketed as "opera," but rather as "music scenes" or something like that.

Campbell: All the advertizing hype before the opening led us to expect more than was there. The Virginia Arts Festuval booklet promoted it as "a new musical theater piece" and it was reviewed by Mal Vincent under the title "An Ambitious Civil War Musical." The out of town critics reviewed it as a song cycle.

Anne Midgette writing in the Washington Post says “It didn't have to be so lightweight” and later in her April 13, 2011 review “It's historically accurate but it feels facile, light, tossed off. Campbell writes a glib lyric but doesn't get as much mileage out of each line; though the piece was short the songs felt verbose.”

Kasparov: Some came away disappointed that they didn't see a through-composed operatic drama and, quite shockingly, put the blame entirely on the composer. Of course it was the librettist, to a greater degree than the composer, who designed this production as an assemblage of loosely-connected scenes: just something different, but different does not mean poor.

Campbell: My notes the morning after we saw it on April 16: Mark Campbell's libretto could have dug deeper. He found the right topics to illuminate the tragic consequences of war, death and destruction. The psychological adjustments of a large, black population who had been educated and treated as property, “working animals,” who were thrust into a wider world of freedom could have been explored. Many were unable to read or write and had no developed skills to deal with exploitation. One-hundred and fifty years later we are still dealing with the consequences as a nation. The music could have strengthened the text, pointing up the tragedy, pain and challenges. In short art songs Ricky Ian Gordon is able to do just that but for these songs he has only created a pretty set of sounds. The death of a lonely, young rebel soldier is a lullaby. He drifts sweetly to sleep. The most emotionally engaging song of the evening was the recently freed slave mouring the death of her stillborn baby.

Campbell: You have convinced me to give the cycle another hearing if there is another production.

We would enjoy hearing readers response to this discussion or any other topic in this newsletter.

Karen Hoy is the area's formost proponent of art song as both teacher and presenter of art song recitals. She is past president of Virginia chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Andrey Kasparov is instructor of music, piano and theory at Old Dominion University and is artistic co-director of the Norfolk Chamber Consort and worked closely with the late singer Lisa Relaford Coston. He is a composer and a pianist and he and his wife, Oksana Lutsyshyn, have recorded the piano works of Adolphus Hailstork and Florent Schmitt.

Thoughts and Impressions of Rappahannock County

Shirley Thompson

Retired Professional Opera Singer, Professor Emeritus Towson University,

Adjunct Instructor Old Dominion University Community Music Department, Spring 2011


In Spring 2011 I taught the class Opera for Everyone at ODU, and in writing these comments I was responding to an email request from class member Trudy Michie, who was so enthusiastic about the first performance of Rappahannock County that she asked me to “put your thoughts on paper” regarding the production to share with the class. In so doing I chose not to follow the standard analytical style of critiquing a work, based mainly on reactions from the logical “left hemisphere” of the brain. My unexpected reactions to Rappahannock County were so surprisingly emotional, and therefore highly “right brained”, that I decided to leave objective detailed criticism to more knowledgeable scholars. After re-reading my comments, I realized that what I had written was my own personal “stream-of-consciousness”, and  I felt somewhat embarrassed to let others read my document. So since April 20th it has been waiting in my computer.

Yesterday I received the online Artsong Update #85 and read the article titled: “Rappahannock County A Discussion between Karen Hoy, Andrey Kasparov and John Campbell”, with an invitation for readers to respond. Since my take on Rappahannock County came from a very different viewpoint, perhaps now is the time to let my document “go public."

In preparation for Rappahannock County an extra Opera for Everyone class was scheduled, and Marilyn Buxbaum arranged for special guest speakers, Assistant Conductor Adam Turner and two of the singers, Joyce Lundy and Patrick Miller, to come and share their musical and dramatic impressions with us, based upon their on-going rehearsal experiences. This afforded class members special insight and preparation for attending the new anticipated production. Their presentations were highly informative and definitely influenced my readiness to become totally involved in the upcoming performances.

 Background: I am a white female senior citizen who grew up in Norfolk during the time of segregation. I attended Taylor Elementary School, Blair Junior High and Maury High School, The Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary (now Old Dominion) and graduated from William and Mary in Williamsburg, having been associated exclusively with white classmates until the age of twenty-two. It was a totally different society then. My friends and I questioned why “Coloreds” and “Whites” had separate facilities, (rest rooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, movies, seating on busses, etc.) but we were too young, too inexperienced and too uninformed to understand or deal with complex social problems. We had no television, no computers, no internet, no cell phones, no blackberries, no social networking, etc., only radio, movie newsreels, newspapers and magazines as our sources of information. Segregation was just the way it was. It was the way of life we knew. Then society began its inevitable evolution in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. I remember both the resistance to the ruling by many people and the acceptance of it by others. Thinking back now it is hard to recall the way life used to be during segregation, but that was the comparison mindset that came over me as I watched Rappahannock County dealing with Civil War slavery.

 Rappahannock County for this writer became an emotional, psychological and philosophical journey. Unfortunately, 150 years ago in the South slavery was just the way it wasIt was the way of life they knew. During Tuesday’s opening night I became mesmerized by the production. There was so much to grasp that I had to go back to see another performance the following Sunday afternoon. The message of the music, the text, the projections on the scrim and the drama spoke to me, and I wanted to experience it again in depth.

  I found the subtle dissonance of the music and the simplicity of each dramatic scene to be so interwoven that each character seemed to step out of history with his or her own identification, whether serious, sad, tragic, comic, ironic or contemplative, etc.  Without trying to be grandiose, the music enhanced the emotions and moods of each character, reflecting the humanity of Civil War society.  It was like looking at an old black-paged photo album with faded pictures of people from a distant past telling their stories.

 Slavery was the evil that never should have happened, and it had to be abolished. It took a devastating war to deal with such an unthinkable crime against humanity! The Civil War was our national tragedy with unimaginable  suffering, so many lives lost, both Confederate and Union, and so much property destruction. As I experienced Rappahannock County, I shed tears for the slave who didn’t know what to do after her white family left her alone when they fled in fear, for the wounded soldier dying in the snow, for the deserter to be hanged at dawn, for the volunteer nurse seeing the pain in the eyes of the young wounded, for the slave who buried her baby, for the former slave turned union soldier who chose not to kill and walked away and for all the Civil War victims.  Then I found my Rappahannock County journey bridging the centuries, and I cried for the victims of wars in my own lifetime: World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, 09/11/2001, Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone know why humanity can’t get it right?

 I want to thank composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist/concept Mark Campbell for their creativity in bringing Rappahannock County into the musical/theatrical repertoire. It doesn’t fit into a standard musical or theatrical category, but rather stands on its own. I thank stage director Kevin Newbury for his insight in bringing the message of this historical period to visual realization.  I thank conductor Rob Fisher and the orchestra members for the sound that underscored the tension of various wartime situations.  I also thank the designers: for scenery/projection Wendall Harrington, costumes Jessica Jahn, lighting Robert Wierzel and creative adviser Dr. Edward Ayers.

The cast of five professional singing/actors or acting/singers deserve the highest praise: baritone Mark Walters, mezzo-soprano Faith Sherman, tenor Matthew Tuell, baritone Kevin Moreno and soprano Aundi Marie Moore. Each voice had its own special quality, and each character identification was genuine.  Their outstanding vocal skills allowed them to share their unique talents of communication. I thank them for their sensitive insightful portrayals of the various Civil War individuals. They delivered the message of each character with diversity, individuality and versatility. I understood the messages of their characters, as other audience members around me seemed to do as well. Many of us in the audience understood, and the spontaneous standing ovations at both performances were because we truly got the overall intended message of Rappahannock County. My personal emotional response could possibly have been generational. If that was it, so be it.

Thank you Virginia Arts Festival and Virginia Opera for having commissioned Rappahannock County and making it a special experience in our artistic community.

Memorial Day Week-end 2011

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