The new opera A Gathering of Sons, which is having its world premiere at Pittsburgh Festival Opera under the direction of Mark Clayton-Southers, addresses one of the most pressing issues of our current moment: the tragedy of police violence against African-American men.
The opera begins with such a moment of violence: Lockdown (Robert Gerold), a white police officer, commands Victor (Terriq White), a young black man, to run and then cold-heartedly shoots him in the back. He takes from Victor a small black bag of “magic,” which Victor warns him will be his ruin. The scene is witnessed by a chorus of spirits that include the ghost of Victor’s deceased father (Leslie Howard) and a multi-generational group of Sons who were also victims of white violence; they appeal to four chthonic figures representing the earth, sky, water, and blood to intervene on behalf of the family and the community and put an end to the cycle of violence.
As Victor lays dying, his brother City (Miles Wilson-Toliver) and his wife Violet (Adrianna M. Cleveland) welcome their new son Freedom into the world; in an observant passage of musical pairing, Victor’s mother Victoria (Denise Sheffey-Powell) joins her wails of mourning to Violet’s cries of labor. In the meantime, the magic Lockdown has stolen begins to work against him, and the spirits that promised to intervene in the first scene torment him mercilessly. When City – who is also a police officer – learns that it was Lockdown who killed his brother, he sets out to seek vengeance; but in the end he resists the temptation to kill Lockdown and arrests him instead. Back in the bosom of his family, City almost loses his newborn son Freedom to cardiac arrest, but the spirits convince Freedom to return to his body, and the opera ends with Victor’s funeral procession and a choral affirmation of faith.
The work is at its best when it takes imaginative flight, as when Lockdown’s gun magically transforms into “Glock” (Kevin Maynor), a menacing figure dressed all in black who turns against him. And in places, librettist Tameka Cage Conley ventures into provocative territory, especially towards the end of the opera, where the spirit of the newborn baby rejects life, not wishing to be born into a world where the color of his skin puts him at risk of an early death. But much of the libretto is overly literal and on-the-nose, with Manichean characters that lack complexity and depth, and in many places the production would have been wise to heed the old theatrical adage “show, don’t tell” and make some judicious edits.
Dwayne Fulton’s music draws mostly on a jazz idiom, with some gospel, some blues, and a hint of a rock beat from time to time. Robert Frankenberry, who also orchestrated the music, conducts the small orchestra with panache, and there are many superb performances among the very large cast. Denise Sheffey-Powell does a lovely job of conveying, through song, the grief and anguish of a mother who has lost her youngest son, and Adrianna M. Cleveland brings a clear, lyrical soprano to the role of Violet. Robert Gerold is strikingly good, both vocally and as an actor, in the (somewhat thankless) role of the villainous cop, and Charlene Canty’s powerful and luminous voice shines in the role of the Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing. Kevin Maynor, who personifies the gun “Glock,” has a fabulous presence and a beautiful voice, but unfortunately his lyrics are nearly impossible to understand. By far the standout in the cast is Miles Wilson-Toliver, who combines a gorgeous baritone voice with compelling charisma in the role of City.
The opera touches a lot of sensitive nerves, including the simmering anger and resentment justifiably held by the black community against both institutional racism in general and police brutality against black men in particular, and it provides some cathartic vengeance in the scene in which Lockdown gets his brutal, tortuous comeuppance at the hands of beings more powerful than he. But A Gathering of Sons seems less interested in exploring solutions or proposing political actions to address police violence than in reinforcing faith in a higher justice. I’ll be honest, that didn’t feel very satisfying to me, especially on the very day Philando Castile’s murderer was acquitted of all charges. Yet the opera’s invocation of patience and endurance clearly resonated with many members of the audience, who responded positively and warmly to the opera’s final – and quite beautiful – choral affirmation of the power of healing through unity and through connection to a higher spirit.