‘Sanctuaries’: An opera to inspire action

The new musical drama from Third Angle delves into gentrification and its cost to Black communities.

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Who does a city serve? What is a city without a people? These are the questions the new opera Sanctuaries raised on its opening weekend. After the performance, my partner and I were stunned. If one of art’s essential fronts is to make us feel, to make us understand others on a deep, indescribable level, then Sanctuaries succeeds. You could say that it is more about the psychological effects of gentrification rather than its materiality. In this way, much like the best political music, it makes real and palpable a political issue that can seem abstract and distant to those who don’t have to endure its consequences.

Sanctuaries – produced by Third Angle New Music, with score by Darrell Grant, libretto by Anis Mojgani, and stage direction by Alexander Gedeon – is not an opera that will preach to you with statistics, nor will it present you an easy-to-follow linear narrative. Instead, it moves in episodes structured by emotions. The performances, outdoors at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which sits on land that once was part of a thriving Black community, were tender and emphatic, especially Ithica Tell‘s as the Carpenter who delivers a fiery monologue before the appearance of the apparition called White, channeling hundreds of years of rage and indignation.

White appears and the displaced characters try to communicate with it. Played by dancer Derion Loman, the apparition speaks to them through dance. I saw this closing dance as a communication with the spirits of Africa, though my knowledge of African religion isn’t strong enough to make any specific connections. There are other references within the music, with call-and-response sections reminiscent of Black Church. Appropriate, since Grant’s soundwalk for Third Angle last year took walkers past Black churches around the Albina neighborhood. 

Darrell Grant's 'Sanctuaries' with Third Angle New Music. Photo by Intisar Abioto.
Marilyn Keller in Darrell Grant’s “Sanctuaries” with Third Angle New Music, with the apparition “White” (dancer Derion Loman) behind. Photo © Intisar Abioto.

It’s not quite fair to speak of “the music” as separate from the action onstage in any opera, but the music always supports and contextualizes the action. There are moments in Sanctuaries that are as free as Ornette Coleman, and I heard bits of the angularity of Eric Dolphy or Charles Mingus poking through. (I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to the 3A mixtapes here and here for Sanctuaries, featuring a great assortment of artists from Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding to Janet Jackson and Earl Sweatshirt.) I wouldn’t say Mojgani’s libretto is direct thematically, but it spells things out pretty clearly. The language moves more through metaphor and imagery than through action. 

As summer comes to a close we won’t be having outdoor concerts for a while. I still felt like the light breeze and traffic noises during the performance added something to the experience. It was not a retreat from reality like a concert in a hall: We were constantly reminded of the city surrounding us, our environs, and the history of the land we were sitting on. Even more than that, the Land Acknowledgement (which is thankfully becoming a more common occurrence) extends that history of this land back for millenia:

“We, the sons and daughters of those that thought themselves pioneers, of European immigrants and farmers, of the once enslaved on wagons rolling West, of their sons and daughters fleeing southern Jim Crow, of survivors of Vanport’s floods and Katrina’s waters, of migrant workers and intrepid dreamers from every country around the globe, we remember you.” [from the concert program]

This reappropriation of land by white settlers is a constant throughout American history. The message underlying an eminent domain notice is, “this land that you have made into a home is ours now, since we will use it better.” The message in the libretto and land acknowledgment spirals out into the past, with centuries of chattel slavery, Manifest Destiny, John Locke and the largest genocide in human history brought forth via implication. 

The Voices of Albina playing before the opera framed the ensuing performance. The interviewees spoke of their experiences living in Albina, the nexus of gentrification in Portland, offering nostalgic visions of what their community was like before it was taken from them to build something for white people. The land that was a thriving neighborhood is now the venue for this very show, much like the neighborhood along the waterfront that became a sprawling freeway and eventually Tom McCall Waterfront park. 

I hope that the audience was just as moved as I was. But being moved simply isn’t enough. This isn’t the place for white audiences to absolve themselves of being born white and perhaps wealthy, or the place to make yourself feel like a good ally for supporting Black artists for a few hours, then going back to comfortable lives of privilege while the problems persist. 

Sure, informing yourself on the capital-I Issues is important, but it hardly means much if it doesn’t turn into tangible results. We have to ask ourselves, how do we rectify the decades and centuries of oppression of our Black neighbors? We have to listen to them with open minds and not just to condescendingly respond, Well, I hear you and see you, but these issues are complex…. Are there ways that the structure of our city government, the nature of the police force or the economics of America’s disgusting wealth inequality contribute to the problem and need to be addressed? If our politicians aren’t doing their jobs, is it possible for us to “hold them accountable,” or do we remind them that their careers depend on them doing what their voters want them to do and threaten to withhold our ballots?

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Darrell Grant's 'Sanctuaries' with Third Angle New Music. Photo by Intisar Abioto.
Darrell Grant’s ‘Sanctuaries’ with Third Angle New Music. Photo © Intisar Abioto.

This discussion so far has barely even touched on the issue of redlining. For decades, Black homeowners were effectively barred from buying in certain neighborhoods based on a pernicious system of banks and HOAs doing everything they could to prevent the wrong people from moving in. It’s silly to say that the history of any state is more or less racist than the history of any other state’s–it’s a real Rogues Gallery–but Oregon had KKK members in its legislature in the 1920s. This is a past that many of us have yet to reconcile with Portland’s professed progressive values. 

Who does gentrification benefit? Certainly there are local residents who benefit from these changes, but it’s hardly as if they have a say in the matter. The people responsible are those with money, and that’s the real issue here. It has been made abundantly clear over the centuries that nothing is scarier to the white establishment than black people gaining wealth and power on their own terms, as the Tulsa Race Massacre, the MOVE bombing and the assassination of Fred Hampton prove. 

Of course, “the Black community” isn’t a monolith–all you need to do is look to the civil rights movement to see that. While they may be looking at similar problems, MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis and Louis Farrakhan all had vastly different perspectives on their solutions. You can find a lot of them speaking on William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line; maybe the only thing I admire about Bill Buckley was his willingness to let black leaders speak openly on his show. 

But don’t let this get in the way of what Sanctuaries communicates: there are deep psychological consequences to gentrification. It forces us to confront the tough reality that the land we are standing on, the world that we take for granted, was built on the backs of centuries of pain and suffering. 

If Sanctuaries moved you like it moved me, or if you missed the show but are sympathetic to the issues, co-creators Grant, Mojgani, and Gedeon, along with Third Angle, provided a list of recommended reading material and organizations to support. The two big ones are Albina Vision Trust and Vanport Mosaic, the latter of which provided the interviews that opened the show. Attend their events or make a donation–it’s a very roundabout way to reparations, sure, but it’s something. 

It is not enough to merely listen, but to listen with open ears and minds and really absorb what is being said and turn that into concrete actions and results. Sanctuaries is a conduit for the frustrations of Portland’s residents who have experienced gentrification first-hand or are horrified by its effects. All I hope is that we see some real changes come some November–or maybe before, if you’re tired of waiting. 

About the author

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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