On Thursday November 11, 2021 at 9:00 AM the third scene “Total Eclipse” of my opera Lost in the Woods will be performed at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. I’m including a program note for the concert and the libretto below but thought I would briefly share more information here and add some needed context now four years after I completed the opera in the fall of 2017.
Snare drums play martial musics from authoritarian governments including Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (United States), Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije (Russia) and using traditional instruments from other authoritarian governments (Jing from North Korea and Chinese Crash Cymbals) which frame the centerpiece and climax of the opera, four drumsets improvising in places and playing in unison in others as the soprano in Sprechstimme acts as a standup comedian/rock band lead singer with a band of drummers comping behind her. The text is from a lecture Thoreau gave “A Plea for John Brown,” after Brown, one of America’s most important abolitionist leaders, was executed in 1859 by the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States. Abraham Lincoln became president the following year and before he took office in March,1861 a confederacy of slave states seceded. One month later the American Civil War began.
When I composed the opera in 2017, it was obvious how I was using Thoreau’s writings. In 2021, after four years of an authoritarian presidency that ended in treason and insurrection, it may no longer be so obvious. Henry David Thoreau’s political writings are famously libertarian and anti-government. But they were also written prior to the Civil War and the government to which he refused to pay tax was a government that went to war with Mexico, which he opposed, and a government that continued to allow slavery, which he also opposed. Thoreau supported John Brown’s insurrection at Harper’s Ferry as a means of ending slavery. He would not have supported insurrectionists, who under the direction of a treasonous President, invaded our nation’s Capitol.
The third scene starts at 29’20” in the New York City performance.
At 30’04”in the Philadelphia performance.
Lost in the Woods
an opera by Christopher Shultis, libretto selected by the composer from political and nature writings of Henry David Thoreau. Video by Hee Sook Kim.
Stacey Mastrian, soprano
AKROS Percussion Collective
Matthew Dudack, Kevin Lewis, Jeff Neitzke, Bill Sallak
Scene III (“Total Eclipse”)
“A government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!”
Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859)
Sometime early in the last decade, the Akros Percussion Collective commissioned me to write a concert length percussion opera. I immediately agreed and planned to write something that used the nature writings found in the journals of Henry David Thoreau. It would also include video by Hee Sook Kim. In 2013 Hee Sook and I heard Stacey Mastrian sing at the University of Pennsylvania and we knew immediately that we wanted her to sing in the opera. The idea originally was that she would sing in wordless vocalise, the female “voice of nature” as it were, and the percussionists would recite the nature texts written by Thoreau, their male voices paired with Stacey’s female voice. How ridiculous that seems in 2021 but that was the idea in 2013.
Then November 2016 happened. I cancelled a talk I was supposed to give the next day at PASIC and barely made it to the plane that weekend, flying me to Venice where Hee Sook was already part of a printmaking residency. I took a collection of Thoreau’s Journals with me and chose all the nature texts while in Italy. But post-election, the entire project of the opera had changed. The percussionists now would be the male voices of nature, spoken through the evocative writing of Thoreau. And the soprano would sing Thoreau’s political writings, sometimes sad and sometimes angry. A reversal: “mother nature” spoken by a man; and politics, still too often controlled and voiced by men, specifically the politics of Thoreau on the eve of the American Civil War, voiced and sung by a woman. I spent the early winter months of 2017 in the seclusion of a Helene Wurlitzer residency in Taos, where I chose the political texts and composed the form of the opera. Scene III is the climax of the opera, completed in the summer of 2017 during a total eclipse of the sun, and composed, as I often do, at the Old Haverford Friends Meeting House. The scene speaks for itself, but I will note in closing that Thoreau’s anger and sadness leading up to the Civil War, as sung by the soprano in this scene using texts from two lectures, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” was remarkably current when it was premiered in Akron, Ohio in 2017. It remained so when performed in Philadelphia and New York City in 2019. And I dare say, and sadly, it may be even more relevant now at the time of this performance in Indianapolis in 2021.
performing Scene III at the 2017 World Premiere)
Percussion (recorded throughout): "Thank God, men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth! We are safe on that side for the present." (Journal, 3 January, 1861)
Soprano Aria I: "Is it not possible that an individual might be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good?" (“A Plea for Captain John Brown”)
P: "There is always some accident in the best of things, whether thoughts or expressions or deeds. The memorable thought, the happy expression, the admirable deed are only partly ours. The thought came to us because we were in a fit mood; also we were unconscious and did not know that we had said or done a good thing. We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success." (Journal, 11 March, 1859)
S Aria II: "Are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and not the spirit?" (A Plea for Captain John Brown)
P: "The song sparrow and blackbird heard today. The snow going off. The ice in the pond one foot thick." (Journal, 13 March, 1846)
P: "I have been breaking silence these twenty-three years and have hardly made a rent in it. Silence has no end; speech is but the beginning of it." (Journal, 9 February, 1846)
P: "As a child looks forward to the coming of the summer, so could we contemplate with quiet joy the circle of the seasons returning without fail eternally." (Journal, 6 January, 1838)
P: "Wherever I go, I tread in the tracks of the Indian. I pick up the bolt which he has but just dropped at my feet. And if I consider destiny I am on his trail." (Journal, 19 March, 1842)
S Aria III: "We talk about a representative government; but what a monster of a government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and the whole heart, are not represented. A semi-human tiger or ox, stalking over the earth, with its heart taken out and the top of its brain shot away. Heroes have fought well on their stumps when their legs were shot off but I never heard of any good done by such a government as that.
The only government that I recognize, --and it matter not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army,--is that power that establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice. What shall we think of a government to which all the truly brave and just men in the land are enemies, standing between it and those whom it oppresses? A government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!
Treason! Where does such treason take its rise? I cannot help thinking of you as you deserve, ye governments." (A Plea for Captain John Brown)
P: "The poem is drawn out from under the feet of the poet, his whole weight has rested on this ground." (Journal, 26 January, 1839)
S Aria IV: "I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk." (Slavery in Massachusetts 1854)