youth opera for 3 professional singers and children
Professional singers: Sop, Bar (sings three roles), African-American Tenor or Bar (both versions exist) Children’s chorus ages 8-18, vn, pno
Commissioned by Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Opera Columbus
Available from Subito Music.
Setting: April 1861 in St. Joseph, Missouri and on a train
This opera was conceived to fit into curricula that included the opening up of the country and the Civil War.
The opera begins in April, 1861 in St. Joseph, Missouri at a hoedown, with an onstage fiddler. We meet Children, Eliza their young teacher, and Tom, her sweetheart. Tom asks Eliza to marry him, and though she adores him, she makes him promise not to enlist in Lincoln’s Army if war breaks out. Having been an orphan herself, she cannot imagine marrying someone who will leave her. Tom insists it is his duty to enlist, this war must be fought but Eliza insists just as strongly that this war has nothing to do with them. Stunned at Tom’s commitment to President Lincoln, to separate from him she accepts a mission with the Children’s Aid Society: she will chaperone an “orphan train”, a group of children from New York being sent to start new lives with families in the west. Furious, stubborn, but still in love, they part.
Alone in the train going east, Eliza mourns her loss of Tom while the train itself (Train Chorus) sings of “Crossing America” and the route overland. Eliza collects her orphans (Children’s Chorus) and starts back on the train west. Having been one of the first orphan train riders herself, she is filled with sympathy and anxiety for her young charges.
The first morning en route the Conductor announces that war has broken out. Eliza, who thinks the war will never affect her, finds an escaped slave named Markus hiding, terrified, in their train car. Hearing Markus’ story of searching for his sold-off children, the war finally does come home to her and she finally understands why Tom has enlisted, indeed, must enlist.
The train arrives in St. Joseph, the frightened orphans take their places for The Viewing, not unlike slaves on the block. Eliza worries both about her orphans and their futures and whether or not it is too late for her and Tom. Tom appears, ready to board this same train for the nearest Union fort. Elated, Eliza tells him she understands his point of view now, and she will marry him now. Since Tom fully expects to be back before harvest, they adopt the two remaining boys. Finally happy, Tom boards the train, where he meets Markus, now in Union uniform. The orphans re-enter with new parents yet they are isolated, alone, displaced. The train takes up its song of American towns again; this time, however, it is a litany of Civil War battle sites that goes on and on and on and on.
from The Kansas City Star feature article:
Takka-takka-tak … History rolled through Glendale Elementary School in Independence on Thursday with the rhythm of a train. It rode on the voices of fifth-grade children who were learning things about themselves they said they had not known. They could sing in front of a crowd. They could act. They could experience emotions that made history real to them, reliving the journey of orphans who rode trains to Missouri under the looming storm of the Civil War. “We got to sing, not just do written work,” said 11-year old Courtney Wickman. “It was so sad, when the orphan children didn’t know where they would go.
“They’re learning how to perform for an audience,” (teacher) Rathke said. “They’re learning what’s in an opera performance, including what’s behind the scenes. And they’re learning a lot about history, about slavery, the Civil War and the orphan trains. It’s a great experience for the kids.” –