McMath shares larger-than-life stories behind eclectic opera



In honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, playwright and producer Meredith Bean McMath opted to commemorate the milestone with an opera based on the life on one of its characters: Oliver Willcox Norton.

The subject of the libretto seemed, almost, to choose her.

“[Norton] just seemed ubiquitous to the Civil War,” McMath said. “I kept on running into his history and he just stuck with me.”

The result, Norton: A Civil War Opera, will be presented at 3:30 p.m. today at the Hall of Christ. Composer David Chávez, who wrote the opera’s music, will be leading the presentation, along with discussion about man behind the opera. He will also be featuring eight of the production’s leading vocalists as they perform excerpts from the show.

What first premiered at the Loudoun Lyric Opera this April was a piece, McMath said, that is ingrained greatly with American history. Already immersed in Civil War writings and the life of O.W. Norton, McMath was struck by the soldier’s vivid detailings of brigade drills, encounters with slaves and gruesome battles.

What makes Norton and his family so “worthy of an opera,” McMath said, are the facts behind the storytelling.

“I truly believe that if you base a play on real stories, it’s much stronger,” McMath said. “Especially when people realize that these are not fictional characters” but are “wonderful people that happened to rise up as incredible heroes.”

When McMath mentioned the larger-than-life story of O.W. Norton to Pamela Butler, the president and co-founder of the Loudoun Lyric Opera, Butler was instantly sold. She led McMath to Chávez, and the pair soon got to work on crafting the opera and finding a cast — all of which McMath said she is “blessed to be a part of.”

Although Norton’s story — told mostly through his famous 1903 collection,  Army Letters — is compelling on its own, it’s the music, McMath said, “which brings his story to life.”

The composer can affirm this.

“It’s been called ‘eclectic,’ ” Chávez said about his composition.

Melting in a mixture of slave songs, spirituals, minstrel songs, patriotic songs and Appalachian folk, Chávez aimed to create a composition rightfully fit for a Civil War icon like Norton. Along with many different Western styles and influences, he said, the music of Norton can sound “a little dissonant” at times, “unfamiliar” at others. But Chávez didn’t aim for a revolutionary piece.

“I’m not so much interested in doing anything that’s too new, so much as to take things familiar and juxtapose them in a number of ways,” he said.

Taking influence from modern classical composers like Aaron Copland, Chávez has worked with McMath and her libretto to capture the Civil War in what may be close to home for many longtime residents of Chautauqua County. What is a “very distinctly American” opera will be recognizable to many ears used to the Western tradition of the art.

Just like his co-writer McMath, Chavez said it was the life of O.W. Norton that transfers so well onto the stage. For the composer, the genre only matters so much.

“The thing that motivates me most as a composer is finding a story worth telling,” Chávez said. “That can be in the form of an opera, a musical, a play — whatever.”

Yet, Chávez admits, it was the music of opera that was most fitting, a style most worthy enough for Norton.