When the curtain rises on “I Dream,” a rhythm and blues opera about Martin Luther King Jr.’s final 36 hours, audiences in Charlotte will witness a performance unlike any Opera Carolina has ever offered.
Expect a range of emotions, from exhilaration to tears, said James Meena, general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina.
“It’s extremely powerful,” he said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of projects before, and this is hands-down the most impressive and most significant piece.”
“I Dream” includes a blend of jazz, blues, soul, gospel and popular music, with a traditional 35-piece orchestra – as well as guitars, electric keyboard and drums. The lyrics are English. The subject, provocative.
Few contemporary operas make it past Meena’s desk. But when he met composer Douglas Tappin and read his libretto, Meena said he felt compelled to bring the production to Charlotte.
He envisioned not only a riveting performance – but also community dialogue around a question posed by King (bass-baritone Derrick Davis) in the opening act:
“Will it always be this way?
Will the place and plight I’m in
Never change, O Lord?”
“The piece is unafraid to talk about issues of race and inequality,” Meena said. “Theater has always, since the days of the ancient Greeks, given us an opportunity and platform to reflect on social issues and contemporary issues of the day and do it in a safe, uplifting environment. It’s part of the reason we took on this challenge.”
Also this: “It’s timely.
“We’ve been struggling with these issues of equity and opportunity and this legacy that we have in our country of stratified cities and inequality,” Meena said. “We’ve seen it here in Charlotte.”
At first, a different King
Tappin, ironically, had only a cursory understanding of King’s role in the American narrative. A native of England, he was born the year before King died.
He loved composing from an early age and earned instrument and music theory certification from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. But to oblige his parents, he became a barrister and practiced commercial and entertainment law for 11 years.
In 2003, Tappin quit law to follow his passion. He moved with his wife and two children to Atlanta where he enrolled at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, seeking to understand “the spiritual aspect of the writing/composition task.”
While there, he wrote an opera he called “King” about King David and King Saul. Friends in Atlanta challenged him about his choice of a title, saying he couldn’t call it that because Atlanta belonged to a different King. Intrigued, Tappin set out to learn more about the man they held up as an American icon.
“It’s such an incredible story of human bravery, of men, women and children willing to stand up for something they believe is right, standing up to oppression and injustice,” Tappin said. “This whole sense of nonviolence – of not retaliating, not hitting back – was way too astonishing a story not to dig in deeper.”
Through flashbacks and reminiscences, “I Dream” traces the trajectory of King’s life before his assassination 50 years ago, as well as significant moments in the civil rights movement.
Of particular interest to Tappin was King’s embrace of nonviolence, which he describes as “a commitment to strong, practical love.”
In one scene, civil rights activist Hosea Williams (tenor Victor Ryan Robertson) questions King’s philosophy:
“I faced Nazi troops in war
“As the noise of battle roared.
“When the lynch mob tried to kill me
“Their worst beating I endured.
“Though I feel the things you feel,
“Need the things you’re preaching of,
“I have never won no victory by love.”
To which, King (Davis) responds:
“One side of me is apathy
Then there are men like you
With murder in their eyes
I know the way of love
Will break this harsh regime
That is how I dream.”
It’s a risk
An earlier version of “I Dream” premiered in Atlanta in 2010 to mixed reviews. Tappin revised the production – he said about 65 to 70 percent is new – and presented it to Meena for consideration several years ago.
“It’s such a different script than what they performed in Atlanta, you can’t even call them the same work,” Meena said. “And that’s a good thing. As soon as I read the (new) script and saw some of the music, I thought, ‘OK, this is a winner.’”
Also a risk.
“It would be much easier to recycle La Traviata, Madame Butterfly or La Boheme,” Meena said. “But in the theater we often forget that we have a responsibility that goes beyond balancing budgets .... We’ve always been the ones who can challenge a community to think differently and reflect on important subjects.”
With that goal in mind, leading up to opening night, Opera Carolina hosted community dialogues to discuss segregation and its impact, and also provided educational materials for students.
“The community engagement is a vital thing,” Tappin said. “Then art becomes so much more than just for the sake of an evening out and entertainment.”
A production of “I Dream” in Toledo, Ohio, earlier this year sold more tickets than any other opera in that city, Meena said. He estimated about 40 percent of the audience were people of color, most of whom had never been to an opera house.
“The most wonderful aspect of the audience in Toledo was that, during intermission, we had people from all walks of life talking about ‘I Dream.’ That’s part of our intention: To have folks across the community, from all walks of life, have this shared experience, reflect on a shared history as America, and hopefully move to a better place.”
He hopes for a similar reaction in Charlotte.
“For those people like me who lived through this history, I hope it re-energizes them and that they take the courage of Dr. King and embrace that courage in their own lives and stand up for what they believe,” Meena said. “For people like my daughters – 20-somethings – I hope they will be challenged and intrigued enough to learn more about this history.”
'Will it always be this way?'
Though Tappin grew up in Great Britain, he remembers his father talking about traveling through the Deep South in the late 1940s. He had emigrated from Jamaica and was looking for a new place to settle.
“Coming from Jamaica, segregation was a shock,” Tappin said.
He said his father rode a bus north but the reception there wasn’t much better. So he sailed to England. Even there, he said, he faced discrimination because of the color of his skin.
“Will it always be this way – will there always be social injustice? Will there always be racism? Will there always be people not paid enough for the work they do?” Tappin said. “That’s the question developed through the piece.”
And the answer?
“Will there be a day when oppression, injustice and hatred are gone from the earth?” Tappin asked. “I don’t know that that can ever happen.”
But by bringing people together through his unconventional opera, he hopes –as the chorus sings in the final scene – that:
“Change will come, some day
We shall overcome
Some day, soon, I pray….”
Rhythm and Blues Opera
Fun fact: The Johnson C. Smith Concert Choir will join the Opera Carolina Chorus under the the direction of Dr. Shawn-Allyce White.
When: 7:30 p.m. May 18-19 and 24-25; 2 p.m. May 20; www.operacarolina.org
Where: Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.