We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?
Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.
But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).
New music for old songs
Daugherty, an Iowa-born composer and musician, is a six-time Grammy winner with a long list of award-winning contemporary works. His music moves from folk to Stravinsky, from jazz to Mahler. It shimmers with American vernacular. In This Land Sings, which premiered in 2016 at Tulsa Camerata, he reshapes a dozen of Guthrie’s songs.
But, contrary to popular opinion, Guthrie was not a composer—he was a lyricist who set new words to borrowed melodies. Daugherty composed original melodies around Guthrie’s lyrics, and scattered several instrumentals throughout the one-hour opera to help to tell Guthrie’s story—and to draw some parallels to today’s world without beating us bloody with the message. He also composed a new overture strictly for this production.
I loved how Daugherty created duets between single instruments and singers. Daugherty was jazz arranger Gil Evans’ assistant for a couple of years in the ‘80s and was Yale University’s jazz band leader, and in this piece you can hear how solos and conversations among instruments—and between instruments and singers—play into his jazz leanings. “This Trombone Kills Fascists” (a riff on the sign pasted on Guthrie’s guitar) gave trombonist Jason Elliott a moment, and trumpeter Logan Thane Brown got another with his solo in “Marfa Lights.”
With the help of narrator Thom Hartmann, who played the radio announcer and is a real-life well-known progressive radio personality broadcasting from Portland, This Land Sings stepped us through Woody Guthrie’s peripatetic life (1912-1967). OTO localized the text (with Daugherty’s permission), because Guthrie lived in Portland’s Lents neighborhood in the ‘40s, did some lucrative public relations for the Bonneville Dam project during that prolific period (“Roll on Columbia, Roll On”), and wrote about the devastating post-war Vanport flood in the late ‘40s.
The well-paced original text was written by Daugherty and Jason S. Heilman, and it was smoothly presented by Hartmann, a practiced pro behind the mike.
But let’s talk more about the music, the production’s sustaining highpoint. The seven-member ensemble included clarinetist Lisa Lipton, bassoonist Danielle Goldman, trumpeter Logan Thane Brown, trombonist Jason Elliot, violinist Bryce Caster, bassist Dan Schulte, and—most amazing—indefatigable percussionist John Lipton, who played instruments from vibes to bongos to bells and whistles and doodads in between. Daugherty might have written the most exciting percussionist score of any opera, notwithstanding some Wagnerian intercessions in The Ring. The percussion gave the music gravity, levity, originality and sparkle.
Then there were the singers, all of whose voices resonated with expression and clarity. Mezzos Hannah Penn and Lisa Neher traded off songs with two male singers. Neher, a small woman with a very big voice, was especially alive in “Don’t Sing Me a Love Song” as she fights against wandering Woody’s perpetual “moving on.” She does a strong duet with whiskey-smooth-voiced baritone Nicholas Meyer in “Forbidden Fruit.” Penn—who sang the lead in this spring’s Portland Opera transgender chamber piece As One—could pull off any song with her deeply textured voice, but her “Bread and Roses” duet with bassoonist Goldman best showed off her burnished chops.
The scene stealer, however, was bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, who performed a number of songs as a kind of Woody Guthrie stand-in, including the poignant closing song “Wayfaring Stranger” as well as “Graceland,” “Hot Air,” “Don’t Sing Me a Love Song” (with Neher), “Perpetual Motion” and “Ballad of Joe Hill.” Aside from his disarming stage presence, he has a bold voice that could carry in the Coliseum.
If there was anything I could have done without, it was the post-opera ukulele-singalong/hootenanny (a Guthrie-Seeger word) of “This Land Is My Land.” I love that song, but after hearing Daugherty’s exquisite instrumental version of “This Land Sings”—proof of his extraordinary gift for blending, bending and breaking musical forms—I wanted to remain with that memory.
The first part of the program featured young Brooklyn, N.Y., composer Michael Lanci’s 2017 “Songs for Joe Hill,” spoken and sung movingly by soprano Helen Huang, who has a helluva lithe tongue and can straighten any verbal twister with precision. Based on five protest songs memorializing Joe Hill—the 19th-century union activist and, some claim, martyr—Songs for Joe Hill made a tuneful and highly suitable 25-minute prelude to the longer This Land Sings, which kicked off with the song “Ballad of Joe Hill.”
Lanci was awarded the 2017-18 American Prize for his five songs accompanied by a six-member ensemble (flute, piano, violin, cello, clarinet and percussion). He and Daugherty attended the Aug. 24 performance, and after their pieces were performed, they took deep, well-earned bows.
Meaning and quality
How bracing, refreshing and encouraging to see a shoestring-budget company such as OTO present such a high-quality and meaningful production. Should I say relevant? Guthrie might not like that word, but we gotta find meaning and truth, and he would approve of that.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. In 2019, she was elected to the executive board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.
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