Michael White's "Garden of Martyrs" Opera Plays to Sold Out House
September 22 was a pristine, fall afternoon in the quaint, college community of Northhampton, Massachusetts. Perfect for a stroll down Main Street with stops along the way for a coffee and a browse in the local Broadside Bookshop. But wait, what is happening — the flashing red sign, and the large crowd gathered at the Northhampton Academy of Music?
“The Garden of Martyrs – Sold Out, ” read the theatre billboard, and the enthusiastic patrons waiting entrance were the final crowd to see the Academy’s production.
The opera, “Garden of Martyrs,” with music by Eric Sawyer, libretto by Harley Erdman and directed by Vernon Hartman, is based on the novel of the same name by Fairfield University Professor of English, Michael C. White, program director of the MFA in Creative Writing. Kevin Rhodes directed the 28-member Springfield Symphony Orchestra.
The story involves the death in 1805 of a young man named Marcus Lyon who was brutally murdered near Springfield, Mass. Two Irish Catholic laborers, Dominic Daley and James Halligan, who were seen in the vicinity, were apprehended, given a hasty trail and executed before a crowd of thousands. Subsequent investigations have led to the conclusion that the young men were innocent and in 1984 Daley and Halligan were officially pardoned by Governor Michael Dukakis.
According to playbill notes, the reasons for telling this story through opera are many. “For starters, Michael White has made the events surrounding this miscarriage of justice positively operatic. Conflict, heroism, fantasy, and impossible love – the stuff of opera – abound in White’s telling. The novel is populated with vivid, complex characters with secrets and interior lives, and giving them the power of song allows us to know them with emotional directness… America has always been a nation of immigrants, and new arrivals have been suspected of terrorism as far back as they came to these shores. Through the immediacy and power of opera, its spectacular heightening of states, we hope that The Garden of Martyrs makes emotionally vivid the struggle of outsiders, of newcomers to our nation – and, indeed to our Western Massachusetts community.”
Professor White, commenting on the experience of seeing his widely acclaimed novel staged as opera posted the following on his Facebook page after seeing the first performance. “I was blown away by the music, the lyrics, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and the remarkable acting and singing of the professional cast. The experience was nearly overwhelming, and despite having written the book, I felt in the hands of skilled artists who were wringing from me every possible emotion.”
According to Gary Wood, director of Fairfield’s Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, “We at the Quick, are amidst plans to present the production in the fall of 2014. The presentation of live opera is rare at the Center, so the production will surely be a highlight to our 2014-15 season. Dates and details of the production will be forthcoming.”