A "fusion oratorio" featuring Harvard Choruses pays tribute to Matthew Shepard. The creative team talks about the power of tragedy and memory in art.
By Anita Lo '16
Tragedies often require gestation periods before they can be reborn as memory. It has been more than 17 years since University of Wyoming first-year student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, on the night of October 12, 1998. His story’s details demand thoughtful reflection from many angles: What drove the attackers to lure him into a van and beat him while taunting: “It’s gay awareness week”? How could this have happened? Why Matthew Shepard?
On April 2, the Harvard Choruses and Instrumental Ensemble, with Grammy Award-winning composer Craig Hella Johnson, will offer a multi-vocal tribute. The “fusion oratorio” features texts by contemporary author Lesléa Newman, 13th century Persian poet Hafiz, German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, W.S. Merwin, Blake, Rumi, Michael Dennis Browne and Dante, among others. Through the words of poets before them, as well as original lyrics by Johnson, the performers will reconsider Shepard’s life and death.
A long chain of creative incubation led to this performance. Considering Matthew Shepard adapts eight poems from Leslea Newman’s book October Mourning: a Song for Matthew Shepard, which offers an in-depth and imaginative rendering of what might have happened. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the book of poetry is its multiple narrators: We hear the story in the voices of animals, protesters at Shepard’s funeral, the perpetrators and inanimate objects.
“My big question about this whole thing was, ‘What happened at the fence?’” Leslea Newman explained. “Those three men were there for 20 minutes, but hundreds of thousands of lives were changed forever. I wish someone could tell me what happened, and I started thinking about what else was there: the fence, as an unwilling accessory to the crime. What would the fence say if the fence could speak? And then I thought of the moon, stars, pistol, truck, shoes and deer.”
Newman spoke of the importance of imagination in the face of tragedy, highlighting the natural response of grief and disbelief. “After the incident, I kept hearing people say, ‘I can’t imagine what that was like,’ or ‘I can’t imagine what it was like for his family.’ But a book is a conversation between a writer and a reader to help us all imagine being any of those people or inanimate objects involved. That invites people to feel compassion and empathy, and inspires people to take action.”
A few years later, composer Craig Hella Johnson, choral director and founding artistic director of the Austin, Texas-based Conspirare, added another layer with initial drafts of an oratorio. He first heard about Shepard in October 1998, during a rehearsal with the all-male ensemble Chanticleer. “I wanted to respond musically in some way,” said Johnson, “but I held it in me for a long time. The idea would continue to knock from an inside door; it was just a few years ago when I said it was time.”
Johnson’s process involved gathering many voices and styles that recalled Newman’s wide-cast net. “What we've been calling this is a contemporary fusion oratorio,” he said. “It’s a merging of styles: traditional styles, blues songs, some modern austere minimalist features. Because of Matt Shepard’s love for the theater, there are Broadway aspects and influences. There are ballads, some very much Western elements and even cowboy yodeling. It was very important to me that it was a work of eclectic nature.”
The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society will perform the oratorio. Harvard students will take the bulk of the performance, with only a few instrumentalists and a one soloist from Conspirare. This combination of voices expands the creative circles through which Shepard’s story has passed.
“Thinking about students who are now Matt’s age when he was murdered performing is very powerful to me, because I imagine many of them would not have heard of him before this. Hopefully with this experience, they’ll be inspired to make the world a safer place in his memory,” said Newman.
Johnson also spoke about the power of bringing many musical, creative and passionate voices together in this work.
“Their age is really important. One of the reasons for the piece is I don’t want anyone to forget Matthew Shepard,” said Johnson. “Especially now, as we think about what we value as a people and address ideas of erasing hatred, I hope we can all find avenues for love in very clear and intentional ways in our world.”
The Harvard Choruses and Instrumental Ensemble will perform Considering Matthew Shepard on 8 p.m. April 2 in Sanders Theatre. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $20 general admission. Poet and lyricist Lesléa Newman (author of Heather Has Two Mommies and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard) will join Jason Marsden ‘94, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Craig Hella Johnson and Harvard professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy, for a post-concert conversation with the audience. Michael McGaghie ‘01, Assistant professor of music and director of choral activities at Macalester College will give a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. Click here for more information.