Philadelphia — From Monteverdi to Mozart, neo-romanticism to modernism, a Victorian courtroom to a burnt-out inner-city block, the daring O17 Opera Festival from Opera Philadelphia is not just thinking out of the box. They don’t even know what a box is. We Shall Not Be Moved is an in-your-face exploration of hopelessness, futile confrontations and fruitless efforts at social insurrection.
The opera, by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain on a bleak libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, follows the fate of five rebellious teens that protest the shutting of their school because of budget shortfalls. The decide to occupy a burnt-out and trashed building where a 1985 standoff between police and members of the MOVE organization disintegrated into a fatal fire bombing.
The leader of this ragtag family is a girl who is self-named Un/Sung, poignantly portrayed by Lauren Whitehead. The four brothers are quite different from her and each other. Interestingly, the men self-identify as black, even the one who is white (played by tenor Daniel Shirley). The other three are bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, baritone Adam Richardson and countertenor John Holiday, who is magnificent as a transgender male.
The situation leads to a tense standoff with a Latina police officer. She is realistically portrayed with grim determination, and a touch of impending panic, by mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez. Her message to Un/Sung is in the form of a ditty: "Little blackbird caged in your little dark world at an age where all your black girl dreams should see the daylight." This, of course, falls on deaf ears.
The story is based on a true occurrence and the plot is advanced by hearing snippets of a media interview between the real officer and a faceless news anchor.
The rebellious teenagers are surrounded by athletic dancers in white, choreographed by Bill T. Jones (also the director and dramaturg), who entwine around the protagonists. They are the ghosts of the residents burned to death in the 1985 fire. Their movements are astounding in their virtuosity, yet never pull attention away from the central action. They comment to it with movement and add tension to the scenes which are by their nature static, yet intensely confrontational.
Before each of the two acts open, there is a lone body on the stage. Before the first act, it is Un/Sung, waiting in vain for the school to open. Before act two, it is one of the teens shot in the shoulder by the nervous officer. Thus, two of today’s hot button issues hang over the entire opera. The first is disappointment in society to deliver on its promises and, later, police violence against an unarmed African-American man.
The music is a combination of styles from R&B and a tamed version of hip-hop with a classical and jazz overlay. As a result, it in none of the above, but a new and fresh musical voice uniquely suited to the subject matter of the opera. A small orchestral ensemble is situated behind a scrim that also morphs via projections into the various required sets. Viswa Subbaraman's crisp and involving conducting not only brings the music to life, but drives the opera forward with an undertone of nervous energy, even in the more reflective moments.
Along with the other creative efforts of the O17 festival, “We shall not be moved” eloquently points the way for a robust future for the art of the opera.
» We Shall Not Be Moved makes its New York premiere at the Apollo Theater, 8 p.m. Oct. 6 and 7. Buy tickets here
» See a video about the making of the piece below: