Opera, Albina, and Architecture

Director Alexander Gedeon and composer Darrell Grant discuss their new opera "Sanctuaries" and its staging outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum

The creative team behind the new opera Sanctuaries, an exploration of displacement and gentrification commissioned by Third Angle and premiering next week outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum (September 7, 8 and 9, 8:30 p.m.), comes with not only impressive credentials but also a variety of perspectives.

Darrell Grant, who composed Sanctuaries, is one of the most highly regarded jazz musicians ever to call Portland home, which is saying something because internationally renowned greats like former Blue Note Records stalwart pianist Andrew Hill and walking-bass pioneer Leroy Vinnegar also spent many years here. From his seminal 1994 album Black Art to ambitious recent themed albums like The Territory to his long professorship at Portland State University, Grant brings both his own musical delights and an investment in young talents.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where “Sanctuaries” will have its premiere. Photo: Brian Libby

Anis Mojgani, the current Poet Laureate of Oregon and writer of the Sanctuaries libretto, is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion and winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam. His work has appeared on HBO and National Public Radio, and his five poetry books will soon be followed by a work of children’s literature.

Anis Mojgani, “Sanctuaries” librettist. Photo: K.B. Dixon

Grant and Mojgani are both new to opera, so Alexander Gedeon brings the experience. Trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (as well as my alma mater, New York University), he’s worked as a director or assistant director with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the L.A. Opera, and many more. Under the stage name Yellow Alex, his disco-inflected music has received regular radio airplay.

Though Grant and Mojgani live here now, none of the three are native Portlanders. Grant was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Denver, and had a long subsequent stay in New York; Mojgani is a New Orleans native, and Gedeon is an Angelino by birth. Yet you don’t have to come from Portland to recognize and feel the pain of displacement, gentrification and discrimination—the topic of Sanctuaries—sadly, they exist in every American city. Even so, given Oregon’s dark history of Black-exclusion laws, and Portland’s own catalog of injustices, the staging of Sanctuaries outside the Coliseum brings with it the potential not just for powerful contemporary opera, but maybe even the chance to mark a new era for this land today known as the Rose Quarter.


THE MAKING OF “SANCTUARIES”: PART ONE


For these artists, staging Sanctuaries wasn’t just an exploration of history. It was a huge collaborative effort to pull off. Recently, I talked with Gedeon and Grant to learn more about both the ideas and the process leading up to this week’s performances.

Alexander Gedeon

Could you talk about the decision to stage the performance at Veterans Memorial Coliseum?

I’ve been working on this for three years. Before Covid, we were going to do it in Albina at North Warehouse. We were thinking site-specific from the beginning. Then Covid hit and that venue became not a possibility anymore. So we started thinking about doing it outside.

Alexander Gedeon, director of the new opera “Sanctuaries.” Photo: Intisar Abioto

As an outsider, as an Angelino, a lot of people helped educate me, not just the relevant journalism dedicated to the details of the history, but also making it a real relatable history through the lens of people’s personal experiences. I talked to some people with the Vanport Mosaic. We were brainstorming: We talked about Legacy Emanuel Hospital, the field there. But the Coliseum kept popping up. “The producers had mentioned it as well as people in the community I had been brainstorming with. When I realized its history I knew it was the perfect location for this.”

I knew that similar to Legacy Emanuel there were hundreds of homes that were destroyed. But then when I saw the Zen pavilion there [the Coliseum’s entry canopy], which is this juxtaposition of this super, kind of building-building: pure rectangular shapes, gridded, next to this Japanese pavilion, it seemed to offer a sanctuary or a sacred space, in such a bizarre way. We had been researching Noh theater from Japan as another non-European source of operatic traditions to be influenced by. Our set designer is Japanese. There had already been talk of ceremonial Japanese theater as something we were drawing from. Once I saw it, and the scale of it—we visited it in the pandemic, when it was totally empty—it felt like the perfect situation. The first words of the opera are an invocation, and it’s, ‘Spirits! A field here where once a house was.’ You could literally just wave your hand out over that space and have it be true.

Maybe, then, the staging of the opera is a spiritual ceremony of sorts?

That’s exactly what it is. I think this is part of the challenge of the definition of opera that’s happening at the moment. It doesn’t have to be a story to be operatic. Acknowledging the spirits on that ground is operatic. We’re at an interesting intersection of site-specific work, Black narratives, and non-narrative opera. This is why I feel opera is kind of exploding right now in certain places. There’s so many paradigms shifting.

Aside from the Coliseum site itself, maybe part of the power here is simply taking opera and performance art out of the concert halls and theaters, and into the rest of the city.

So often the neutral spaces for creating theater in cities that we think of and cherish and value are also white spaces. I do think starting to be aware of context and using that as an ingredient is one way to start dismantling white spaces too. We’re all out here just reckoning with the past.

On the eve of the premiere, what has you excited? What are people going to see?

Darrell Grant has written this incredible opera at the intersection of bel canto, opera and jazz. Two of the principal singers in this piece are residents of the neighborhood, and grew up in the church tradition. So when they talk about invoking spirits in music, that’s a real thing. So to be in a space where you’re also touching on things that are social and political and relevant and heightened, and also emotionally cathartic, it’s thrilling. I leave rehearsal with more energy than I had coming in.

Darrell Grant

We’re talking about two weeks before the “Sanctuaries” premiere. How’s it going?

It’s getting better and better. I’ve never done an opera before or particularly been in this process. There are so many things that need to happen behind the scenes. All of these other skill sets and artistic inspiration and vision are going into this. I’ve only been concerned up ’til now with the music. It’s interesting now to see how it all comes to play: the sets, the costumes. All of that in service of this music and text is pretty amazing. It’s so wonderful to hear these voices that have been in my head.

Pianist and composer Darrell Grant, composer of “Sanctuaries.” Photo: Thomas Teal Midres

How is “Sanctuaries” a continuation of ideas you’ve explored in past works like 2014’s The Territory?

I’m always interested in cultural history, and the intersection of art and place.

The Territory was an exploration of the land that grew into an exploration of cultural history: how we chose to live on the land. So this idea of doing a piece on gentrification and displacement, it was not unfamiliar to me. I’ve been in Portland since 1997, so I did experience at least one wave of this incredible gentrification that has happened in this city. But what I didn’t know was this impact on neighborhoods: what was no longer there.

Alexander and I talked about the notion of this “Sanctuaries” performance at the Coliseum having aspects of a spiritual ceremony.

I think that’s possible. … We also started to talk about Noh theater in Japan [an ancient form of theater dating to the 14th century]. There’s a formalism, a ritual to that. We talked about the Black church service. There’s a formalism and a ritual to that. What was interesting was giving myself permission to explore and embrace these things that the dominant culture didn’t.

Can the Coliseum serve a future Albina community and right the wrongs of its past?

You asked me a personal question. I’m not a Portlander. So the impulse that whoever built this building had, for what it was going to commemorate and how that was important to the civic life of the city, that’s not a vision I share, because I’m not from here. The pattern in so many cities paving over black and brown communities is not something that can be ignored. If you’re asking me, ‘Can we somehow make up for the inhumane injustice that was perpetrated?’, I would say the first thing we have to do is own that injustice fully: like restoratively acknowledge that injustice. Then we can maybe talk about what role this structure is going to play in the city or the community moving forward. What Sanctuaries is, in some ways, is an attempt to address that wound.

You moved to Portland in 1997. Would you mind reflecting on that journey a bit?

I’ve really enjoyed my time in Portland in the past 25 years. But it’s also been a time of growth. I love learning about the history of place. As an artist, to hear and respond to that history of place, feels like a privilege. I guess for me too, not growing up here…it’s been an obligation to enlighten myself about the history. What writing The Territory revealed to me was the myth of Oregon. We were being covered in The New York Times as this incredible place. There was that sort of utopian story, and Portlandia. But at the same time there was this story that existed below the surface. It wasn’t part of the myth. So learning about the internment of Japanese Americans, learning about the slaughter of Chinese miners, the lynching of Black people and the KKK, all those things that were not part of the narrative, I feel like over my time being here, over time I’ve had to relinquish the myth. Sanctuaries has been a wonderful opportunity to speak to that, to say, ‘This is the history, the continuity. The gentrification we’re seeing now is just the tip of an iceberg. As we look beneath the surface and see urban renewal and redlining and discriminatory housing laws, that’s the only way we can go forward. We can’t pretend that things that are true are not true. Once we see that, we are obliged to try and make decisions that truly do benefit all people. My time in Portland has been for me to discover my role in that process, in recognizing my privilege, and then using it in the service of those people who don’t have it in order to create a more equitable community.

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NEXT: In Part Two, Brett Campbell delves into the challenges that Grant, Gedeon, and librettist Anis Mojgani have faced in bringing Sanctuaries to fruition: “They had to figure out how to turn a concept like gentrification into action on stage. How to navigate a pandemic and a racial uprising and riots exploding right in time for its scheduled premiere. And before all that — they had to learn how to make an opera.”

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Sanctuaries: The Opera

  • Sanctuaries features bass-baritone Damien Geter, baritone Emmanuel Henreid, altos Marilyn Keller and Ithica Tell, and dancer Derion Loman.
  • Performances are outdoors at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum Pavilion, 300 N. Winning Way, Portland, near the east end of the Broadway Bridge.
  • 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 7, 8, and 9; house opens at 7:30 p.m. each evening.
  • No intermission; running time a little over an hour.
  • Performance details here.
  • Tickets: $5-$35; information here.

About the author

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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