Wed | Aug 23, 2017

The University Singers’1865 rises to the occasion

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2015 | 6:00 AMPaul H. Williams
Paul Bogle (Anthony Alexander) leading the march from Stony Gut to Morant Bay in '1865'.
George William Gordon (Franklin Haliburton) in defiance of the gentry.
Paul Bogle (Anthony Alexander) and the mass look on as a villager (Althea McKenzie) sings about the cause of her distress.
Paul Bogle, played by Anthony Alexander, confronts the gentry.
A scene from the uprising in '1865'.
Roy Thompson's Macka Stick aria is one of the most captivating moments of 1865.
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In October 1865, Paul Bogle, a well-to-do black man from Stony Gut, St Thomas; George William Gordon, a coloured politician; and more than 400 peasants were killed by the authorities in St Thomas. Stony Gut was ravished by fire, which destroyed Bogle's church.

This was after Bogle and his followers marched from Stony Gut to Morant Bay to see the custos. Bogle had previously gone to see Governor Eyre in Spanish Town, St Catherine, but the governor refused to see him, to address the socio-economic hardship prevailing in the land.

At Morant Bay, the mass and the authorities faced off. The tension heightened, and culminated in the people burning down the courthouse in which the custos and others were hiding. Many, including the custos himself, perished in the fire. The reaction was swift and brutal, and led to the recall and trial of Governor Eyre for Gordon's hanging. But Eyre was never convicted.

The Morant Bay Uprising is one of the watershed events in our chequered history. It led to Jamaica coming under Crown Colony Government, direct rule from England, and it's an event, in retrospect, that shows what can happen in the response to injustice and contempt.

In commemoration of this significant landmark, the world-renowned University Singers, of the University of the West Indies, Mona, has mounted 1865, the first full-length Jamaican opera, for its 2015 season.

And the ensemble, including the University Chorale and guest soloists, has risen to the occasion; that is the general feeling.

INITIAL SPARK

Shortly after the curtain came down on the triumphant finale, Arts & Education sat down with musical director Franklin Haliburton, who himself plays Gordon, to chat about this his most ambitious undertaking, thus far. The attorney-at-law, who has been with the University Singers for more than a decade, wrote the score and the libretto.

He said four years ago, they were trying to find an excerpt of an opera to insert into their regular concert season, but there was nothing Jamaican. Noel Dexter, a musical director, found it disturbing, and told Haliburton to go and write something on the Morant Bay Rebellion.

"I rubbished the thought ... and just put it aside, but it stuck with me. Three weeks after he planted the idea, we did about 20 minutes of it in the regular concert season," Haliburton said.

The effort got "widespread acclaim", he stated, and said he was "hard-pressed" to write the extended version, which he "approached in a matter-of-fact way". Then he finally started the process, "and it was quite serendipitous that the whole thing came together".

"I think the gods must have ordained it, because this is the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion," he said in retrospect.

But how challenging was it to write?

"Writing the music was not a challenge at all, the challenging part for me was getting the libretto (the script, the words and how they flow in poetic form, etc). It took hours ... days, thousands of hours of research into the Morant Bay Rebellion. I had to study the characters, what motivated them, etc, just to try to fit everything together," he recalled.

The trickiest part was to align the voices, blending them. The first thing he did to achieve that was to divide them into the gentry and peasants. From there, everything gradually fell into place, and now it is a trailblazing Jamaican opera.

"An emotional roller coaster," Haliburton revealed. "That it has been performed is very humbling." However, he said he would like to see "more synergy between the band and the cast", but it is early days yet, and things will be fixed so that the scenes can get tighter.

Arts & Education also spoke with prolific actor, director and playwright, Brian Heap, who said the production went well for the first night. The concept and execution, he said, are working, since Haliburton is not trying to tell the literal historical story.

"It was written through an artistic lens, and Haliburton has written a fantastic operatic score, and the performers are coming to terms with it," Heap said.

DELIBERATE TIMING

The production was deliberately mounted to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Uprising. "I think it's very important the anniversary is marked by something which is an artistic product of national importance," Heap shared.

He believes the music stands out more than any other element, as well as the voices. Of course, there was great singing, world-class if you will. And the acting, too, was way up there.

From Arts & Education's perspective, standout performances were delivered by Haliburton as Gordon; Althea McKenzie, a villager; Nomali Lumsden, Gordon's wife; Stephan Morris, Jacko; and Roy Thompson, the narrator. "Roy Thompson is terrific, his delivery of the The Macka Stick aria, I think, is the highlight of the show," Heap opined.

Thompson is another long-time member of the University Singers, and, like most of the performers, had never appeared in an opera. "It was very, very exciting, very thrilling," he said of his operatic debut, "And it was good to come out of your comfort zone, and act and sing. It was fabulous."

But the significance of the production was not lost on him. "And the story means a lot to me, to all of us. Because we have inherited a legacy that these persons fought for, and so we are here because of that story. That was such a telling point in our history. So I just really want to bring that to the audience, and I think they got it."

They certainly did, based on their reaction to Thompson's presentation. He concurred with Heap that The Macka Stick aria was very special. It was his most challenging part, however, he said. "It was me coming out of my comfort zone ... Vocally, it was very demanding. I am used to singing the high church classical pieces," he revealed.

1865 is certainly a significant achievement, and whatever conceptual, technical, and production shortcomings it might have, it is still an extremely delightful first-time effort, for which the audience on opening night, Saturday, May 23, gave a sustained round of applause.

Devon Dick, Morant Bay Uprising scholar, said it is "excellent", "great", a "historic opera dealing with an important part of our history".