Heritage Lecture program features excerpts from ‘Norton’

Jim Poston | Provided via Loudoun Lyric Opera
A scene from the April premiere of Norton: A Civil War Opera.

Meredith Bean McMath, the librettist of Norton: A Civil War Opera, said that the unsung hero of the story, Oliver Willcox Norton, was something of “a Forrest Gump of the Civil War, because he appears in so many places.”

In name and spirit, O.W., as he was known, will appear at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. David E. Chávez, composer of the opera, will discuss the research and writing of the opera, and along with members of the Loudoun Lyric Opera, will perform excerpts.

The opera premiered in April 2014, performed by the Loudoun Lyric Opera of Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. McMath said she had started with the concept of a Norton opera years ago, although she conceived of it first as a play.

Norton had “a very strong will and beautiful writing style,” McMath said.

The soldier wrote many letters during the Civil War and in 1903 compiled them into a book, Army Letters 1861-1865, which he dedicated to his wife, Lucy. He had intended it as a record for family history.

Among his letters, one in particular interested McMath, a letter talking about a slave woman Norton had met on the road.

“He wrote a detailed account,” McMath said. “He saw her and her children. He wrote it all out. I became fascinated with Oliver Willcox Norton.”

The play then turned to opera.

“His story is worthy of an opera,” McMath said. “My intention as an historian has always been to draw people back to the actual history. If you can have them walk in these various people’s shoes, and if you know the format of classic storytelling, they are going to get a new perspective.”

Chávez composed the music. He said that previous to this endeavor he had enjoyed Civil War history, but it was not something in which he specialized.

“I had written a couple of operas before but nothing as full-blown as this,” he said. “When Meredith told me this true story — of a bugler — I found it very compelling. I’m about stories that are worth telling, and this man who most Americans probably haven’t heard of, and the creation of ‘Taps.’ ”

Chávez said he listens to the inherent musicality of the spoken word. In composing music, he thinks about how characters might, in fact, have spoken the words, and what would be the pitch and contour of their voices. To this, he said, there is no single answer.

“A lot of the opera has to do with how I thought a character might have spoken,” he said. “For me, it starts with the story.”

Today, Chávez will play the piano. He might bring a snare drum. A few singers from the Loudoun Lyric Opera will join him. They will perform some excerpts and focus on the music, even though they won’t have all the cast and instruments, Chávez said. They will share some of the creation of the work.

“I like not just to write down some notes in an ivory tower but to collaborate with the musicians,” Chávez said. “We will talk about that. Plenty of times in creating the story, even when there is a mistake, it can sound great.”

The opera is eclectic, Chávez said. Taps shows up a couple of times, but it can be very subtle.

“I don’t want to beat you over the head with Taps,” he said.

The music also contains references to old African-American and Appalachian songs.

“The musical tradition of African-Americans, former slaves, so richly informs our music,” Chávez said.

There are references, too, to blues and jazz and rock  ’n’ roll.

“It is very much a 21st-century opera,” Chávez said.