'John Brown' Looks at the Cost of Freedom: A Truly American Opera about the Struggle to End Slavery

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He was an abolitionist, a man of faith and in today's terms a terrorist. John Brown, the fierce foe of slavery who launched a raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 in a vain effort to arm and liberate the slaves of Virginia and thence the South, is the subject of a new opera. Composed and written by Kirke Mechem, "John Brown" had its world premiere May 3 at the Lyric Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., not far from "Bloody Kansas" where the opera opens.

For opera buffs, indeed for anyone interested in the drama of moral choice, "John Brown" rewards attendance. The opera features a lush choral score drawn from American hymns and folk music. It works as theater, with the case for and against violence on behalf of a noble cause presented in all its complexity. What unfolds on stage over the course of a nearly three-hour production is a historical drama that seems strikingly contemporary in its concern with individuals taking up arms against the state and the religious warrant for this. With its strong score and story, the opera is likely to become a standard in the operatic repertoire.

Mr. Mechem took nearly 20 years to complete "John Brown." He said his intention in writing the opera was to offer a warning to society of the consequences of repression. "We must finally learn that injustice is the mother of catastrophe," he wrote in an essay about the opera called "Why John Brown?"

The opera opens in 1855 in Lawrence, Kan., as pro- and anti-slavery forces do baffle over whether Kansas will enter the union as a free state or a slave state. The character of Martha pleads with her france, John Brown's son Oliver, to leave town to avoid the bloodshed that is threatening. Martha and her brother, Tom, are pacifists and say they want no truck with "politics."

Like the pro-slavery border ruffians who are harassing them, the free-state settlers in Lawrence are divided between those who advocate violence and those who wish to keep things peaceful. Tellingly, John Brown's first words when he comes onstage echo Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew: "Think not that I come to send peace on earth; not peace but a sword." -Brown's opinion about whether the settlers should fight is unequivocal: "What kind of peace can you possibly make with slavery?" asks Brown.

The tension between the desire for peace and the desire for justice animates the opera. No easy answers are provided. Pacifists (Christian and otherwise) are just as likely to have their convictions challenged by the opera as those who would summarily dismiss Brown as a zealot or religious extremist. The opera's frequent biblical allusions make clear the religious faith that nurtured Brown's convictions. Brown saw himself as another Moses called to deliver his people from the sin of slavery. Just as Moses killed a slave master to protect a helpless slave, Brown considered violence justified if it would end the monstrous cruelty of slavery. A man who knew much of the Bible by heart, the abolitionist drew from scripture inspiration for his own actions. Hovering over all the actions in the opera are the clouds of war.


Almost 150 years after his death, Brown remains a controversial figure. In part, it was to clear away the legends surrounding him that the composer says he wrote "John Brown." Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1925, Mr. Mechem spent much of his youth in Topeka, Kan., where his father was head of the Kansas State Historical Society. Kirke Field Mechem wrote a radio play, "John Brown," that won an award for verse drama in 1938 and was broadcast on national radio.

Twenty-five years later, his son was living in Vienna when he considered writing an opera. "My thoughts immediately turned to John Brown," he wrote. It took another 10 years before he seriously sat down to write, however. At the time, he turned to his father, then over 80, for a libretto. Eventually, however, the father's and son's views of John Brown proved too divergent to reconcile. …