Photographer Scott Van Osdol
Photographer Scott Van Osdol
A week later, I still feel a catch in my throat each time I think back to the haunting music and imagery from the deeply moving performance of Considering Matthew Shepard that our family attended in Austin last week. It was the world premiere of this extraordinary oratorio, composed and conducted by Craig Hella Johnson, and performed by Conspirare, the 30-voice choral ensemble that he founded in 1991.
AN OLD FRIEND
The piece was based on October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, an extraordinary book of poems written by Lesléa Newman, a noted author, poet and long-time friend of ours. She lives in Western Massachusetts, and we hadn't seen her since we were all scratching out a living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 80's, so when she said she was coming to Austin for the premiere performance, we quickly said yes.
Truthfully, I'm generally not a fan of big choral performances, and wasn't very eager to drive all the way to Austin to hear the famous, heart-breaking story of young Matthew Shepard's gruesome, gay-bashing death set to music. But Zet and I were eager to catch up with our friend, Lesléa, and it seemed like one of those important cultural events that we feel compelled to expose our teenager to periodically. Of course, Mateo didn't want to go but we played the "parent card," telling him (just like I told myself) that this was one of those cultural boundary-stretching events that we needed to see. Period.
A NEW EXPERIENCE
Little did I know how true that would turn out to be. Of course, the music itself was extremely well crafted and highly creative, as I'd expected, given Conspirare's worldwide acclaim and Craig Hella Johnson's fame as a composer/conductor. Moreover, the melodic adaptation of Lesléa's poetry was very lyrical and the staging was first rate, with a very restrained, but highly effective use of minimalist video projection, props and placement of the singers that really propelled the gut-wrenching tale forward in unexpected ways. But I'm a little embarrassed to admit that what got to me more than the artistry and production values was the fact that the lyrics often referred to the nineteen year-old Matthew Shepard as "Matt" - the same nickname often applied to our beloved, sixteen year-old son, Mateo.
A CHILLING REMINDER
Listening to the oratorio unfold, it was all too easy to glance sideways at Mateo and imagine our kind, sensitive and compassionate son being confronted with hatred and cruelty some day. To remember how commonplace it is for free spirits like him to suffer at the hands of strangers, simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And, yes, I was probably interjecting and/or projecting painful memories of some of my own past experiences in this realm. But, stealing glimpses at Mateo's face from time to time, I saw that his misgivings about attending this show, too, had been melted away by the power of the story unfolding onstage. Unlike his mother and I, he never quite gave in to the tears welling up beneath his quivering temples, but he, too, was clearly moved by the magical, musical spell being cast by the singers and the songs.
A NEW VIEW
That's the power of great art: it opens our hearts to the full range of joys and sorrows, peace and pathos, uplift and anger we humans share, whoever we are, wherever we live. The fact is that a powerful live musical or theatrical performance, like the one we witnessed from Conspirare, has the unique capacity to draw audience members into the heart of the story, by drawing on the universal palette of human feelings, longings and short-comings. And in the case of Considering Mark Shepard, it provides us with palpable reminders of our aspirations, and inspires us to do what we can to move in the direction of our dreams - not just as individuals, but also as a people.
As the echoes of Conspirare's masterful performance continue to resonate in my heart and mind, I find myself feeling a renewed sense of purpose as a writer, musician and spiritual director. At a time when the airwaves are increasingly being filled with the shrill voices of pundits and political candidates issuing dire warnings of eminent danger and urging us to protect ourselves from strangers, I choose to step up my efforts to create new songs and stories of peace, possibility and the power of Love. To celebrate our Oneness. And to elevate the conversation within the context of the Circle and beyond, as we find ways to learn, embrace and affirm the awareness that "We Are One."
PS: I invite you to join me in listening to the rebroadcast of the premiere performance of Considering Matthew Shepard on KMFA 89.5, KMFA.org afternoon, . I'm pretty sure you'll be glad you did. And if you know anyone in Los Angeles, let them know that tickets are still available for the second live performance night, Saturday 2.27.2016.