An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries

Ghosts and Dreams

Plots that Integrate Past with Present

Chief Standing Bear
Ponca Chief Standing Bear and family, Nebraska Territory

In an operatic universe, historical characters, past and present, are permitted to transcend time, converse candidly, even encouraged to contemplate their individual impact on history with one another. An historical opera is and can be a vehicle in which to transport an idea, a dream, or a story, thereby, keeping the event well remembered and historically current. 

Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis, composer of Wakonda's Dream

Wakonda’s Dream (2007) is about a modern-day Native American family affected by the historical events that occurred in the famous Nebraska 1879 trial of Standing Bear which changed the legal status of American Indians to that of “human beings under the law” for the first time in U.S. history. The opera is the story of a family struggling to find their place in contemporary society and of their young son, who has a ghostly connection to the long-dead Chief Standing Bear who gives him spiritual guidance. Written by Anthony Davis with a libretto by Yusef Domunyakaa, Wakonda’s Dream was inspired by a true story told to Davis by an Indian woman that lived on the land where Standing Bear was buried, and whose five-year old son saw and spoke to the spirit of the Standing Bear.

Luana DeVol as Susan B. Anthony
Luana DeVol in San Francisco Opera's
2003 production of Mother of Us All
Mother of Us All score
Score of Virgil Thomson's Mother of Us All
Virgil Thomson
Virgil Thomson, 1971. Oil on canvas, by Alice Neel

The Mother of Us All (1947) chronicles the life of Susan B. Anthony, the “mother” who gradually brought all to understand and pass her law – the right for women to vote. An opera by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Gertrude Stein, it weaves together historical figures and situations that make this an opera more about ideas and issues than about any individuals or personalities. Stein classified this work as a pageant and in doing so, she harkened back to those turn- of the century local pageants that were conceived not so much as entertainment, but rather as a method of educating a community through a celebration of that community’s history. Thomson’s score, largely reminiscent of folk music and Baptist hymns, typifies the music of American pageantry.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim at home, New York City, 1987

Assassins(1990), an American musical play with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, tells the story, part fact, part fiction of the nine actual or foiled presidential assassins whose only common ground is their dissatisfaction of how the American dream has eluded them. The assassins past and present, all talk to one another and together conclude that the American dream is only a confidence trick that leaves only one way to transform themselves from nobody to somebody, and have an impact on history. Sondheim’s score takes staples of American folk, pop and ceremonial music reflecting the popular music of the depicted eras.

Assassins poster
Crescent Theatre production of Sondheim's Assassins, 2004

Copyright © 2007 Old Dominion University Libraries
Diehn Composers Room

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