Teen wisdom tackles racial ghosts in genre-merging US opera

At a time when the United States is consumed by debate over how to remember its racial history, could deeper insights into the past come from the mouths of teenagers?

The hidden wisdom of young people forms an underlying narrative in “We Shall Not Be Moved,” an opera opening Saturday in Philadelphia that merges contemporary black musical forms with influences of the classical canon.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” — directed by Bill T. Jones, one of America’s foremost choreographers — is among three world premieres in the new season of Opera Philadelphia, part of a revival of a once struggling company.

The opera is set against the backdrop of the 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of the compound of the black liberation movement MOVE, which had often protested racism and police brutality.

Eleven people died when, after an armed standoff, a police helicopter dropped a bomb that sparked a ferocious blaze, destroying dozens of houses in what remains the only aerial attack in US police history.

The incident forms living history in the opera, in which five teenagers squat in an abandoned house at the bombing site and create a family of sorts — and speak to ghosts known, in a nod to hip-hop argot, as the OGs, or original gangstas.

Jones said the opera was not trying to relitigate the MOVE bombing, for which no one was criminally charged, but rather to contribute to a nuanced national discussion of historical responsibility.

– Listening to young people –

The cast of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in a dress rehearsal for the new opera, set in Philadelphia after police bombed the compound of a black liberation group

Poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who wrote the libretto for “We Shall Not Be Moved,” said he had long been struck by the sophistication of teenagers’ writing.

“Young people are underrated in terms of how astute their political analysis can be,” said Joseph, himself the father of two.

Starring adult singers, the opera tries to encapsulate big ideas but relate them through the voices of children.

“Do young people really talk like this? Do they use phrases like ‘vacuous vendetta’?” he asked with a laugh.

“But I think many of us, particularly many folks of color, learn to speak out not just by code-switching but really code-surfing,” he said, referring to the skill in quickly adapting language to different audiences.

The teenagers in the opera wrestle with their own experiences. One teenager is transgender, and the lead character, with heavy symbolism, is named Un/Sung.

The plot builds into a confrontation between the teenagers and a Latina police officer who grew up in the community but is now tasked with defending order.

The MOVE bombing “was this climactic moment of crisis in 1985; but many of the same themes — the right to free speech, the tension between mostly people of color and the police, the disregard for the lives of people of color who dare to speak out — are present in our current discourse,” Joseph said.

“This is not about MOVE; this is about America.”

– Giving place to spoken word –

Choreographer Bill T. Jones, left, watches a rehearsal of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ with composer Daniel Bernard Roumain

Daniel Bernard Roumain, the Haitian-American composer known for blending classical and contemporary forms, said he reached into Philadelphia’s musical history.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” brings in the city’s soul scene as well as spoken word, which Roumain noted has a storied tradition in black music.

He also sought to embed repeated orchestral motifs, in the manner of opera greats such as Wagner and Verdi.

“The big musical obstacles we were trying to solve were fun problems — how do you incorporate spoken artists into a mezzo-soprano and how do you have R&B singers singing literally alongside highly trained opera singers?” he asked.

“I looked at it as, what are the various ways in which the word can be delivered — sung, spoken, rapped.”

“We Shall Not Be Moved” is part of the inaugural “O17” festival of Opera Philadelphia, which will stage productions across the city over 12 days in a bid to reach broader audiences.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” will later head to the Apollo Theater in New York and London’s Hackney Empire theater.

Black Friday

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