A tale of operatic proportions

New work based on seminal event in local history


It was an event that transfixed the region more than 200 years ago, one that would eventually prompt considerable collective soul-searching and then a proclamation from former Gov. Michael Dukakis exonerating two men - Dominic Daley and James Halligan - 178 years after their deaths.

Now the story of the two Irish immigrants, hanged in Northampton in 1806 for a crime they likely didn't commit, will be told in a new fashion: via an opera.

Eric Sawyer, a music professor and composer at Amherst College, and Harley Erdman, a playwright and theater professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have joined forces to produce an operatic version of the 2004 historical novel "The Garden of Martyrs." The opera, still in the working stages, will explore the final days of Daley and Halligan, convicted of murdering a man along a highway in Wilbraham, and the role that a French refugee priest, Father Jean Cheverus, plays in defending them in the face of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

The opera's second act will be staged on June 12 at Amherst College as part of a free performance workshop. After the performance, which begins at 5 p.m. at Buckley Recital Hall, Sawyer, Erdman and conductor Kevin Rhodes will lead a discussion of the work with the audience.

A second public staging of Act II will take place on June 17 at 7 p.m. in the Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield. The opera's first act was performed publicly in January in Amherst.

'Operatic qualities'

Separately, Erdman and Sawyer have both co-authored other operas. Erdman was the librettist for "The Captivation of Eunice Williams," a 2004 interpretation of the story of a young white girl captured during the Deerfield Massacre of 1704 who eventually married a Native American. The opera, staged by Old Deerfield Productions, was performed locally and in other locations, including Washington, D.C.

Sawyer, meantime, composed the music for "Our American Cousin," a 2008 production at The Academy of Music in Northampton that looked at Abraham Lincoln's last night through the eyes of the actors and audience members at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater during an 1865 performance of a popular play of the same name.

Sawyer and Erdman's collaboration today traces its origins to last April, when Sawyer read "The Garden of Martyrs," by Connecticut novelist Michael C. White, and was struck by what he calls the book's "operatic qualities."

"It has a dramatic scope and theme, but it also has a basic story line - it's not cluttered with characters," said Sawyer during a recent interview in his Amherst College office. "And of course it's a story that is very familiar to many people in this area."

The book, told predominantly from the perspectives of Halligan, Cheverus and Daley, is based on historical events but is also, White writes in an afterword, very much a work of fiction: "I have taken many liberties with real characters and events and chronologies." Little is known about Daley and Halligan, for example, and though Cheverus was a public figure - he became the first Roman Catholic bishop of Boston - the novel creates an imaginary part for him during the French Revolution, giving him a dark secret that haunts his life in America.

But at its heart, Erdman says, the book, which he had also read, explores a theme in American history: the hostility faced by immigrants.

"It has a kind of long link to a mythic subject," he said, noting that some 15,000 people came to watch Daley and Halligan hanged in Northampton, at a time when the town's population was perhaps 2,500. "It has an emotional depth that really resonated with me."

Sawyer contacted White after reading "Garden" and asked if he could make it into an opera; he says White has been gracious and supportive of the project from the start. His next step was to call Erdman, whose work he had admired in "The Captivation of Eunice Williams," to ask if he'd be interested in working with him. Erdman, who had liked "My American Cousin," agreed, and the two began meeting last spring to hash out ideas.

The operatic version of "Garden" simplifies the story line, concentrating on the last days of the prisoners and on Cheverus' appearance in Northampton to hear their confessions, after which he delivers a sermon in the town's main church, denouncing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice and the ghoulish voyeurism that prompts people to flock to a public execution.

"The novel has a lot of flashbacks that we couldn't incorporate in the opera," Sawyer said. "But we were also able to use some of the actual words from Father Cheverus from his sermon - they're very eloquent and moving. They're about finding some dignity for all people." Cheverus, for instance, is largely credited with winning greater acceptance for Catholics among the state's overwhelmingly Protestant population in the early 1800s.

Erdman drafted an outline of the opera, breaking down how the scenes could be staged. Then, with feedback from Sawyer, he began writing the lyrics, scene by scene, and feeding them to Sawyer for review. Once a scene had been settled, Sawyer began scoring it for piano and vocals.

Contributing artists

That score, which incorporates American folk and hymnal music traditions - is now largely finished, Sawyer says, and this summer he'll begin adding orchestral parts. In the meantime, he's enlisted several regional actors and singers in the production: tenor William Hite and soprano Amy Johnson, who both teach at UMass; baritone John Salvi, a UMass graduate; and conductor Rhodes, who is the music director of the Springfield Symphony.

Sawyer notes that the contributing artists "have been exceedingly generous" with their time, as the production so far has been funded primarily with grant money, including $6,000 from Amherst College's Office of Community Engagement. He estimates that staging the full opera - the target date is June 2013, likely at Northampton's Academy of Music - will probably cost $100,000. "We're going to be putting together a very serious fundraising campaign," he said.

Sawyer and Erdman say they hope area residents will support an artistic project that takes a fresh approach to interpreting a seminal chapter of both local and Massachusetts history. "I love local history, and to be involved in art that responds to community concerns and interests is really a thrill for me," Erdman said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.