EDITOR’S NOTE: “Sanctuaries,” the new opera with music by Portland jazz standout Darrell Grant, libretto by Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani, and direction by Los Angeles director and songwriter Alexander Gedeon, has its premiere production Sept. 7-9 outdoors at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Brett Campbell traces the making of the opera: Grant and Mojgani, Campbell writes, “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.” Also see Opera, Albina, and Architecture, Brian Libby’s related story about the project’s cultural and architectural backgrounds, and the choice of Memorial Coliseum – built on what once was a center of the city’s Black community – as the stage for the opera’s premiere.
Many composers long for the opportunity to write an opera. Combining music with words, story and stage action offers the chance to work on the largest possible canvas. But opera also costs a small fortune to produce, and commissions are rare.
Though Grant, a renowned jazz pianist, composer, educator and community advocate, is one of Oregon’s most accomplished and admired musicians, composers and activists, until then he’d worked primarily in jazz. Sure, he’d been classically trained, even written and performed what many would call “classical” music. But just as people of color had once been forbidden by law to move to Oregon, and then by statute and practice from buying or renting homes in most Portland neighborhoods, so too had African Americans been systematically excluded from classical music institutions, including opera. How many Black opera composers can you name? Offhand, Grant couldn’t think of any. Opera, he thought, just wasn’t his territory.
THE MAKING OF “SANCTUARIES”: PART TWO
Oregon, however, was, ever since he moved here in 1997 to teach at Portland State University. And he had plenty to say about it, including the injustices that had long damaged its communities of color. The deed to then-Third Angle music director Ron Blessinger’s house, he told Grant, even had one of those restrictive covenants (later overturned by law) forbidding sale to Black people. If that could change, then so could opera’s exclusion of composers of color. The Third Angle commission, Grant realized, could allow him to take a deep dive into one of his adopted state’s most pressing and persistent injustices: gentrification.
Grant agreed to compose the music, and over the next four years, he and his collaborators created a site-specific, interdisciplinary jazz opera that promises to be a landmark artistic response to Oregon’s most pressing and persistent social injustice. Next week, Third Angle musicians and guest artists perform Sanctuaries, with music by Darrell Grant, libretto by Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani, and stage direction by Los Angeles-based opera director Alexander Gedeon — at the site of one of Portland’s most devastating displacements of its African American residents, Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
To get there, the creative team faced treacherous obstacles. 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.
Making Opera Black
Grant already knew about Oregon’s lethal legacy of racism, and about classical music forms. In fact, he’d recently composed a marvelous chamber jazz work for a mixed chamber ensemble of jazz and classical musicians for Chamber Music Northwest that viewed Oregon’s history in part through the (shades of The 1619 Project) lens of the racism that was embedded in the state’s founding document. Without descending into didacticism, Grant’s The Territory, also acknowledged the struggles and triumphs of Oregonians of color over the years, and caught Third Angle’s attention.
So Grant knew how place and race intertwined in Oregon — and he knew he could say something about that, in music that also intertwined classical and jazz styles. He welcomed the opportunity to stretch his creative muscles and take on a new and invigorating creative challenge. But he had a lot to learn — about gentrification; about opera itself.
Abetted by a sabbatical from his day job at Portland State, and by community partners including Vanport Mosaic, he embarked on months of research to bring him up to speed on the causes and consequences of gentrification, in Portland and beyond. Eagerly nerding out on books, archives, articles, interviews with neighborhood leaders, story circles, historical maps of the heart of the city’s Black community, Northeast Portland’s gentrifying Albina neighborhood, and other sources (see a list of Grant’s recommended readings below), he learned about the city and nation’s history of predatory lending, redlining, urban “removal,” city planning — the complex factors that added up to a sordid tale of displacement and discrimination that deeply damaged Portland’s African American communities.
Grant also studied the operatic art form, where he discovered contemporary musicians who were moving into classical territories from various nonclassical genres. Philip Glass, who’s written dozens of operas, realized early on that the word “opera” simply means “work” (it’s the plural of “opus”), and that definitional vagueness allowed him access to grants, commissions and venues open to operas that sounded nothing like his minimalist music. Though it mightn’t be obvious from the predominantly pale, male, and stale programming of Northwest opera companies, the medium, Grant realized, was increasingly being used to tell contemporary relevant stories from cultures beyond 19th century Europe.
In fact, he found, Black composers had indeed written operas, including Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha as far back as 1911. The greatest 20th century African American classical composer, William Grant Still, wrote nine operas, including Troubled Island, the first (with a libretto by Langston Hughes, completed by Verna Arvey, who married Still after their collaboration) to be staged by a major American opera company, in 1949. Few were staged; none have been revived. No wonder many composers of color regarded opera as forbidden territory.
But that was slowly beginning to change. California composer and jazz musician Anthony Davis had by then written three operas, including one about Malcolm X, in the 1980s. Fellow jazz luminary Terence Blanchard had recently completed a jazz opera about a prize fighter and was working on another. Now, Grant wondered: How could he claim his own operatic territory?
“That was the challenge,” he says, “growing up ensconced in Western European culture of all kinds, to eliminate the white gaze, to shift the way we look at this art form.” In a 2020 interview with fellow Portland State professor Lisa Jarrett, he remembered asking himself, “What would it take for me to create a piece that the African American community — which inspired this piece, which it is about, which it’s for — feels such ownership of it that it’s like this is our opera?”
The answer: draw on his own African American musical traditions. Jazz of course, from Sidney Bechet on down, but also field hollers, Motown artists like Marvin Gaye, the storied Philadelphia Sound, Kanye West, Gullah and Geechee culture from Black communities in the coastal South … all supplied grist for his musical mill.
Of course, he did learn from classical composers like Wagner (who introduced the notion of musical leitmotivs), early 20th century modernist composer Alban Berg (who used a technique called Sprechstimme that reminded Grant of scat singing), white contemporary composers like Caroline Shaw and David Lang, even Spanish zarzuela.
Writing an opera also expanded Grant’s artistic palette. “I’d never written a big piece I didn’t play in,” he explains. “Initially, I felt a lot of resistance to having to write everything out.” He was used to composing for jazz musicians, who might need only a chart of a piece’s chordal pattern to seed an elaborate interpretation. Now, he could specify precise levels of volume, articulation, and more, but found ways to balance that control while affording space for the “jazz element to live in the music. I like having both,” he concludes. “I like the improvisatory and responding nature of jazz — and also enjoy precision and specificity” of classical notation. “Now, it’s a candy store!”
From Subject to Story
Where once a house was, was many houses,
with many trees
now gone.from Sanctuaries libretto by Anis Mojgani
While developing the opera’s musical language, Grant was also figuring out how to transform all that research and feeling about gentrification into a stage drama. Most theater starts with a narrative, but this one began with a subject: gentrification. Now Grant had to turn that subject into a story.
He had a tentative title — Sanctuaries — because he knew he wanted the opera to emerge from different spaces — “musical touchstones”— in a gentrifying community: church, home, park, business. “What are the stories that come from around those spaces that have served as sanctuary for the Black community?”
Drawing on stories he’d gleaned from members of Albina’s Black community and more, he came up with four archetypal characters, and a general storyline that he hoped would speak to communities beyond Albina.
Now he needed someone to write the actual words to be sung. Friends suggested Anis Mojgani, a two-time National Poetry Slam Individual Champion whose performances had electrified Portlanders, including Grant, since he’d arrived in 2004. Grant checked out some of Mojgani’s performances online and, in fall 2017, got in touch.
“I was super intrigued,” Mojgani recalls. Although, like Grant, he was an esteemed performer and creator, “I had no relationship to opera,” and therefore, like Grant, he hesitated to join the creative team. But as they discussed the gentrification, “the thought of exploring those themes through this new form was exciting.”
He’d experienced it first-hand from his first Portland residence in downtown’s Everett Lofts, right on the border between the city’s low-income Old Town and the rapidly gentrifying Pearl District — “this strange emptiness jutting up against new condos and apartments.” And he’d seen it from his first Portland job at a coffee shop on Alberta Street, in the heart of one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods, which was then beginning to gentrify. A Black-owned business across the street disappeared; a new mix of residents oblivious to the area’s history began replacing long-time customers.
“It was sometimes challenging to go home from work feeling I was working in a place that was contributing to what I could see was going to be a huge change there,” Mojgani remembers. Third Angle’s commission offered a way to use his art to call out that displacement.
He agreed to give it a shot, immersing himself in articles about Portland history, urban design, and the timeline of North Portland gentrification, tracking down opera libretti, listening to a wide range of music.
Even though he was an opera novice, Mojgani had occasionally mixed music (his own and others) with words he’d already written, sometimes playing tunes on guitar or ukulele or piano. But this would be “the first time writing something I knew was going to be connected to music,” not to mention music that he hadn’t yet heard and hadn’t even been written. (The epigraphs in this story come from his libretto.)
Since Mojgani and Grant were both opera newbies, they knew they needed another creative partner. Grant sought advice from his friend and fellow Chamber Music America board member Billy Childs, like Grant a much-admired pianist and composer in jazz who also had experience in classical music. “You should call my nephew,” Childs suggested.
That turned out to be Alexander Gedeon, a Los Angeles-based stage director, songwriter and performer who’d worked on contemporary and classic operas with trailblazers such as The Industry’s Yuval Sharon and Long Beach Opera, as well as L.A. and Pacific Opera companies. Gedeon was a graduate of New York University’s Experimental Theater Wing who also trained at London’s famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and his formative artistic encounters included the innovations of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and other New York legends.
The opportunity to work on Sanctuaries arrived at a moment when Gedeon was facing the frustrations that limited artists of color in white-dominated institutions such as opera, and considering how his own activism would inform his artistic work. “In the world of opera, there’s a complete lack of Black creatives,” he says. “When the production meeting starts, I’m still usually the only Black person in the room.”
Now, he saw Sanctuaries as a way to “re-centralize Black voices, narratives and experiences from a creative standpoint, part of a process of elevating that slow-going change in opera,” he explains. “As I was considering what my own mission is artistically, this show has given me an opportunity to connect to artists who were a little further along in that sense.”
Gedeon had a personal connection, too. Although he’d never lived in Oregon, his mother is a native of Albany, Oregon, who lives in Ashland. And his aunt actually grew up in Portland’s Albina district — where her father owned and ran his own businesses: a neighborhood bar and apartment buildings. The memories his aunt shared with him helped inform his contributions.
By 2018, the creative team was set. In creating Sanctuaries, they would be figuratively reversing the process of gentrification they were writing about: three artists of color proudly entering a space from which they and their predecessors had been unfairly excluded — and making it their own.
From Story to Stage
Everywhere and always
it always been the same story
––the men came and said
you got to go to another part of the yard now
Sanctuaries was no traditional opera, and the team purposely avoided following the typical opera-making formula. Grant wanted the creative process to be more collaborative, mirroring the way communities of color have had to pull together to survive racism.
“Opera needs to be inherently interdisciplinary,” Gedeon says, “not starting with the composer, then the librettist and the director, and then the singer has to eat what she’s force-fed.”
Grant gave Mojgani the basic outline he’d drafted, containing a quartet of characters who represented different voices from within Black communities and a historical timeline, told him to use any or none of it, and they were on their way.
Throughout 2019, Grant and Mojgani met every month or two to exchange ideas and respond to each other’s questions and tentative sketches. “It was both collaborative while also giving me the freedom to just write and see what came about,” Mojgani remembers. “So much of my creative process is showing up and seeing what tumbles out, and making something out of that. It was like a relay race. I’d turn over what I created and hand it off to [Grant], then him doing his part, then handing it off to Alexander,” who visited several times for working sessions.
One thing they quickly agreed on: “We early on decided that Sanctuaries was not meant to be an instructional piece for white people,” Grant declares. “It’s open to everyone, but directed at Black people. This is about telling our story to each other, for each other.”
But they also faced a challenge: how to turn a concept like gentrification into a story, and archetypal characters into action onstage?
They decided to treat the opera “more like a ceremony and less like a piece of drama,” Gedeon explains. “Rather than creating characters to tell a story, we’re looking at the inherent drama of what it means for Black bodies to traverse and inhabit spaces that were once Black spaces and neighborhoods — and are now white spaces.”
Embracing the notion of sanctuary, and drawing on the ritualistic conventions of Japanese Noh theater and other ceremonial and ritualistic forms (another departure from operatic convention), “we built the structure intuitively like you would a church service: processional, invocation, sermon, psalm, poem, communion,” he says. There follows a story circle, a dance and another poem. The concept of ceremony would define the show’s design and action.
To embody the story, Grant enlisted a stellar cast of Portland singers including operatic baritone (and occasional ArtsWatch contributor) Damien Geter, the great Portland jazz singer Marilyn Keller (who’d brightened The Territory), singers Emmanuel “Onry” Henreid and Jasmine Johnson, spoken word artist Ithica Tell, and dancer Derion Loman, accompanied by Third Angle instrumentalists.
Protest and Pandemic
What does the city hold for us?
For whom is the city making itself?
In September 2019, Mojgani made the last changes in his libretto. Work continued on the production, which was announced for April 2020 at a historically significant warehouse in a gentrifying North Portland neighborhood.
You know what happened next. After Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic-inspired shutdown order that March, and then the police murder of George Floyd (and outrage igniting over other racist law enforcement depredations), Portland’s ensuing protests, Trump-ordered federal escalation, and all the rest, Third Angle rescheduled Sanctuaries, first to April 2021, and then to this week’s outdoor performances. (Pandemic precautions will be in place.)
Grant used the extended time to tweak some elements of the show, and repurpose snippets and outtakes for other projects — including Come Sunday, one of Third Angle’s fascinating Soundwalks series, which allows listeners to hear Grant’s music interwoven with recordings of some of the voices from Portland’s historically African American neighborhoods — while ambling through those spaces. (It also works fine as a home listening experience.)
The venue also changed, of necessity as outdoor performance would be safer during a pandemic than the enclosed warehouse. Third Angle Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann zeroed in on Memorial Coliseum, built on the bones of a razed Black neighborhood during the height of Portland’s urban-renewal assault on its Black community, which also involved the state blasting highways through its heart, part of a decades-long national assault on Black neighborhoods. (Oregon’s highway department is continuing the attack with plans to widen that freeway to 10 lanes, supported by state leaders, with only cosmetic mitigations.) While experiencing Sanctuaries “at the scene of the crime,” as Grant puts it, audience members can imagine the ghosts of the community shoved aside to make the performance space possible.
“I love that Sanctuaries is happening there in a space that is an actual physical reminder and evidence of what this city has done to its Black communities,” Mojgani says. “And I do like that it’s happening now. I hope that it can provide a sense of healing, some kind of balm in the reality of the pandemic.”
But the main change from the delay came not in the opera itself, but in how it will be perceived. All three creators think Sanctuaries will have a different, possibly greater impact premiering now instead of a year and a half ago, before so much changed.
“The murder of George Floyd pulled back the curtain on all of our history,” Grant says. “Now what we’re talking about in this opera becomes part of our general consciousness. Does this change our message? No. The core idea of this piece is that the wound that is racism needs to be confronted.”
If the racist murders of Floyd and all the others, and other violence directed at Black bodies and communities, are symptoms, then racist displacement of Black people is a primary if not proximate cause. At a moment when many white people are belatedly asking how and why so many racist horrors could still be happening today, Sanctuaries provides one clue — one that’s less tangible and therefore less likely to be confronted, even though displacement’s impact has been and continues to be profound, in Portland and beyond.
“This piece concerns itself with the spiritual dimensions of displacement, fallout from gentrification, getting to the root causes of the evil that seeded predatory capitalism and the commodification of the Black body,” Gedeon explains. “All these things are connected to why people historically didn’t give a shit about Black neighborhoods. That’s the brilliance of Anis’s libretto — he’s traced the roots of why we are where we are. After last year, we don’t need to explain any of this now.”
Sanctuaries is also artistically timely, arriving a year after Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five and two years after Daniel Bernard Roumain’s opera We Shall Not Be Moved (about the Philadelphia police’s deadly 1985 MOVE bombing). Portland’s Esperanza Spalding is playing the upcoming West Coast premiere of jazz legend Wayne Shorter’s new opera, Iphigenia. Next year, even the long-racist Metropolitan Opera will finally premiere its first-ever opera by a Black composer in its 138-year history: Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Can opera at last become a territory where composers of any color are welcome?
Gedeon hopes so. “I think American opera needs to grow up because it’s such a historically obsessed institution,” he says. “What other art form is so obsessed with its own history? To deify it means to deify Eurocentrism. The whole thing needs to be rethought.”
Sanctuaries represents some of that long-overdue rethinking. Just claiming space — sanctuary, even — for creators of color in an artistic medium so long denied them makes the opera an Oregon arts landmark. So does its willingness to address the consequences of one of Oregon’s original sins — racist displacement, a word that poet Mojgani prefers to the more abstract “gentrification,” which neglects the impact on the people forced out of their communities.
The artists hope it’ll do more. “I want any members of our Black audience to feel like there’s a representation of their presence and their voices taking and holding space,” says Mojgani. He hopes the rest of the audience will “go away with a larger perception of what the reality of displacement in our city means.”
Grant, a longtime social justice advocate as well as musician and teacher, also sees Sanctuaries as in part a means to an end.
“I do believe that art is a powerful tool for changing people’s minds,” he says. “What I want is for us to find a way for communities of color to thrive. In sharing Sanctuaries, I want everybody (who sees) this opera — white or Black — to think deeply about that, and maybe imagine some different possibilities about how that can happen.”
Readings & Resources
To learn more about the gentrification and communities that inspired Sanctuaries, Grant and Third Angle suggest some links to sounds, videos, organizations, and readings.
- Spotify playlist
- Sanctuaries Mix Tape
- Anything But Ordinary Podcast
- Root Shocked documentary
- Opera, Albina, and Architecture
- ‘Memorial Coliseum: Resurfacing the Past, Reseeding the Future‘
- ‘North Williams Gentrified, Its Park Didn’t.‘
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein (2017)
- Gentrification, Inequality and The Fight for the Neighborhood, Peter Moskowitz (2017)
- What a City is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement, Matt Hern (2016)
- History of Albina Plan Area, Portland State University Comprehensive Planning Workshop (1990)
- Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment 1940-2000, Karen Gibson (2015)
- “Reclaiming Stolen Black Lands in the ‘Whitest City,’” Eliot Neighborhood
- Albina Vision Trust
- Vanport Mosaic
Sanctuaries: The Opera
- Sanctuaries performances are outdoors at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum Pavilion, 300 N. Winning Way, 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.
Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.
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