How Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels turned an enslaved man’s narrative into an opera
By Elizabeth Siegel
The opera was first performed on December 11, 2015, at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, with music by the world-renowned composer Aaron Jay Kernis; libretto by the New York theaterwright Rhiannon Giddens; and additional vocal and instrumental singing by Michael Abels. The result was a production that made the production of Giddens’ acclaimed play, “The House of Pride,” which premiered at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Manhattan on November 9, 1993, seem merely parochial.
The “House of Pride” was set in 18th-century New England. It tells the inspiring story of the heroic fugitive slave, Nathan. One night while being chased by the New York militia, he meets a freedom-loving slave named Polly. Polly’s family sold three of their young sons to the army, which then sent them on to join Nathan as indentures bound to serve until they were purchased.
The story culminates in the final scene, when Nathan and Polly are reunited. The slave and his wife, along with Nathan and Polly’s five-year-old son, witness the birth of their first child. The opera ends with the family singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the child on the lap of Nathan, who then points to the sky, saying, “This little boy’s going to take his place.”
After the show, while the audience roared with applause and shouted, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Giddens took the microphone from the stage after the intermission and thanked the audience for the attention and for coming from all over the country to see her first opera.
“I feel I could sing in any language, but when you say, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ there is this unique moment and emotion in the voice,” Giddens said later, the audience, who turned out in full force, responding with an