Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2002 issue, no. 114.

From Classroom to Concert Hall: Timothy Breen’s Essay Becomes an Opera

Imagine this: you’re a scholar of early American history, and you’ve just finished delivering a lecture about an obscure eighteenth-century slave named Arthur. You expect polite applause and queries from a few eager graduate students. Instead, a tall, distinguished gentlemen approaches you and says, “I was very moved by Arthur’s story. I’d like to turn it into a full-length opera.“

Thus began Timothy H. Breen’s amazing journey from classroom to concert hall. Breen, who is William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University, presented his lecture on Arthur back in the early 1990s at the National Humanities Center in the Research Triangle, North Carolina. A later version of Arthur’s story appeared as an essay, “Making History: The Force of Public Opinion in the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts,“ in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, edited by Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute and published by the University of North Carolina Press for the Institute. The distinguished gentlemen was renowned African-American composer T. J. Anderson, a longtime faculty member and chair of the music department at Tufts University.

Arthur’s biography is indeed compelling. Described by Professor Breen as “rambunctious, frisky, charming,“ Arthur was born in 1747 and grew up near Worcester, Massachusetts. He lived a life of petty crime, sold from master to master, developing “an insatiable taste for freedom and adventure.“ Despite many episodes of running away and escaping from jail, Arthur inevitably returned home.

Finally Arthur was charged with rape-wrongly, Professor Breen believes-and hanged before a crowd of thousands. His jailhouse confessions, “The Life, and Dying Speech of Arthur, a Negro Man,“ were published as a broadside in 1768. By putting the issue of slavery directly before the people, reinforcing their uneasiness about the institution, “Arthur was part of the story of the end of slavery in Massachusetts,“ says Professor Breen.

But why an opera? As T. J. Anderson explains, the focus of most modern opera has traveled far from the heroic, larger-than-life tales of Tristan and Turandot, reflecting a general trend in the arts as well as history. “We’ve been moving away from the glamorous in music to the little people,“ he says. “Arthur’s sense of life and his demand for freedom permeates everything he does-it makes him a marvelous figure for an opera.“

Coming from two widely different perspectives, Professors Breen and Anderson both recognized Arthur as an active agent in history, a forgotten slave who’d long been denied that agency.

Anderson wanted to begin the composition process with the libretto. He called on a colleague, who recommended Yusef Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Although familiar with Anderson’s earlier opera, “Soldier Boy, Soldier,“ about a Vietnam veteran, Komunyakaa had never before written a libretto. For Anderson, however, Komunyakaa’s poetry “is the closest thing to song. The poetic sound of words is more important than someone who’s written 20 librettos.“

As for Professor Breen, he notes that colleagues expressed initial skepticism. “People said to me, ’Look, when he goes to work on this, he’s going to make changes in the story. Doesn’t that bother you?’“ Breen says, “It bothered me not at all. I didn’t see it as an assault on truth.“

Breen, Anderson, and Komunyakaa engaged in a close and fruitful collaboration to weave Arthur’s life into art. “These men have taken me on as a full partner,“ Breen says, noting their many exchanges and discussions over several years. Anderson then set to work putting words to music. Professor Breen calls Anderson, “one of the most boldly experimental minds in music today. Each piece he writes pushes the envelope.“

The final result of many years’ work is the opera “Slipknot,“ commissioned by the Northwestern University School of Music, with the enthusiastic support of Dean Bernard J. Dobroski. The title, of course, has multiple meanings-Arthur’s attempts to slip from the cultural knot that bound him, and his eventual punishment by the hangman’s noose.

The opera is in two acts, scored for orchestra and electronic synthesizer. The role of Arthur is to be sung by a baritone; there will be a chorus made up of Arthur’s fellow citizens-slaves and their masters, poor whites, Mashpee Indians. The production will be performed in workshops this spring, with the goal of a full-scale production at Northwestern in the fall of 2002.

For Professor Breen, it’s an unimagined experience, one that offers a chance to bring history to an entire new audience. “I’ve never been part of anything like this before. It’s developed into a wonderful celebration of people.“

Sara K. Piccini