COT’s trivial “Freedom Ride” reduces Civil Rights heroes to soap opera cliches

Sun Feb 09, 2020 at 12:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Dara Rahming with children’s chorus in the world premiere of Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Michael Brosilow

As the cast took their curtain calls following the world premiere of Freedom Ride Saturday night at the Studebaker Theater, the video projections showed booking photos of dozens of freedom riders on the back wall—many of whom were beaten, arrested or threatened with violence in their courageous pursuit of Civil Rights in the segregated deep South of the early 1960s.

Unfortunately, those eloquent images were far more moving than anything that took place onstage in the preceding 90 minutes of Dan Shore’s opera, presented by Chicago Opera Theater.

It’s surprising that it took this long for someone to write an opera based on the freedom riders—activists who rode interstate buses into southern states to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions that ruled segregated public buses were unconstitutional. One would think that such a volatile and dramatic period in our history would provide failsafe material for a compelling opera.

Maybe it will some day but Freedom Ride ain’t it. Dan Shore’s opera is a resounding failure across the board—hobbled by lightweight, wholly unmemorable music that too often relies on pastiche gospel for “big” moments. Worse are Shore’s trite lyrics and simplistic libretto, which reduce these heroes of the Civil Rights movement to trivial Lifetime Channel cliches.

The fictional scenario takes place in New Orleans in the summer of 1961, where the young Sylvie Davenport is preparing to go to college. Her brother Russell encourages her to join the freedom riders, but Sylvie is skeptical. She changes her mind partly due to her growing attraction to the charismatic activist Clayton. Amid her friendship with fellow African-American and Northern white activists, their church homebase is bombed, killing one of her friends. Ultimately, Sylvie decides to take the train to Jackson, Mississippi and join the freedom riders.    

The scenario itself could form a viable scaffolding for Shore’s opera. The problem is the stilted didactic nature of the scenes and the action. There is zero believable character development as the opera lurches awkwardly from one plot point to the next. When Sylvie swears angrily at Clayton after he politely rejects her advances we think, “What is her problem?”  After the climactic and fatal bombing we are immediately whisked into another uptempo gospel reprise. 

The life-threatening violence and genuine dangers the real freedom riders faced are in little evidence in a storyline that relies on situational cliches and leaden dialogue. Every solo aria ends on a big high note and emphatic chord, milking applause like a third-rate musical. Likewise, the repeated appearances of a large children’s chorus feels intrusive and manipulative in an attempt to play on the heartstrings (“Aren’t they cute?”) rather than crafting a work that provides genuine dramatic tension (and better music).

COT usually works wonders with its economical resources but the uneven staging and erratic direction too often highlighted Freedom Ride’s weaknesses rather than overcoming them. 

Donald Eastman’s bare unit set with a strangely raised portico frame was serviceable but uninspiring. Tazewell Thompson’s park-and-bark direction veered from underplayed emotional high peaks to uptempo songs with dancing by all the cast and back again with no consistent dramatic tension or narrative thread. The sudden Jewish wedding circle dance for the song by the Northern activist Marc (Blake Friedman) elicited laughter on opening night. And the climactic bombing of the church was so ineptly staged—with confetti falling from the ceiling—that one had to consult the program to realize what actually happened.

Rasean Davonte Johnson’s evocative projections and Harry Nadal’s dead-on 1961 costuming were bright spots in a staging that did little to help elevate Shore’s problematic work.

As Sylvie, Dara Rahming was a forceful presence and showed some gleaming high notes in her vocal opportunities. She was less successful etching Sylvie’s vulnerability and her evolution from skeptic to activist, though Shore’s ramshackle libretto made that almost impossible.

The smoky-voiced mezzo Zoie Reams (seen in COT’s Everest last fall) provided the finest singing and acting of the night as Georgia, Sylvie’s doubtful mother. Kim E. Jones was an affecting presence as the doomed, asthmatic Ruby.

Also noteworthy among the large cast were Robert Sims as Clayton, an earnest advocate for the movement and the object of Sylvie’s affections, and Tyrone Chambers II as Sylvie’s wavering brother Russell. Amid the variable acting, Cornelius Johnson was a credible, dignified presence as Reverend Mitchell, leader of the freedom riders.

Music director Lidiya Yankovsyaka provided her usual alert and well-balanced conducting though the sometimes scrappy playing of the Chicago Sinfonietta was below the standard of the company’s regular band of freelancers.

Freedom Ride will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. February 16. Both performances are sold out but turn-back tickets may be available. chicagooperatheater.org

Posted in Performances


3 Responses to “COT’s trivial “Freedom Ride” reduces Civil Rights heroes to soap opera cliches”

  1. Posted Feb 09, 2020 at 4:57 pm by Mary

    I dare say that the poor critique of this Opera by Daniel Shore has not taken into consideration the absolute authenticity of this era and our opportunity and our duty to have younger generations see this Opera!
    If one really thinks about it, we who were aware of such brutality have a responsibility to have our youngest generation to at least did this cruelty not only happen in the 1960’s but we continue to subject humans (as we all our) seeing the same humiliation in our 21st Century! Are we not separating children from their parent’s via human constructed steel walls by our “enlightened President Trump.” Personally, I can’t think of a more appropriate opera that should be introduced to all the youth of this Enlightenment” 21st Century. Dan Shore you may very well be our enlighting Rod!
    Thank You for your time, effort, and incite!

  2. Posted Feb 10, 2020 at 10:37 am by Joan Staples

    We are subscribers of long standing. We have heard some of the singers before. We liked the music. We felt that the scenario and drama were not as exciting. The Sinfonietta is a fine orchestra. PBS has had programs about the Freedom Riders in other years; they seem to have decided not to highlight them this February. The opera might have been stronger if it included testimony by real Freedom Riders and the multiracial efforts of that movement.

  3. Posted Feb 10, 2020 at 11:10 pm by Bobbie R.

    This is an excessively harsh review of a worthy effort by COT. Freedom Ride is a concise work that adequately captures some of the emotions, conflicts, and history within the early Civil Rights movement. During the pre-opera discussion, composer/librettist Dan Shore explained the musical context and influences of the Freedom Ride era that he incorporated into the score, of which gospel and church music played a significant role. Those scenes were effectively woven into the action. I found the two brief children’s choruses no less annoying or musically intrusive than the children’s chorus scenes in, let’s say, Carmen or Boheme.

    Regarding the perceived lack of character development, it’s unrealistic and frankly, ridiculous, to apply Da Ponte literary standards to this contemporary work, or even most operatic masterpieces, for that matter. The Freedom Ride characters were sufficiently delineated and sympathetic. The fragile emotions of a vulnerable young black girl embarking on a dangerous social justice mission deserve better than the reviewer’s inappropriate question, “What is her problem?” I would also note the librettist’s attention to the steely resolve of two of the female characters (Georgia Davenport and Leonie Baker, sung compellingly by Zoie Reams and Whitney Morrison, respectively), both of whom agonized about the potential risks, damage, and loss resulting from challenges to the established social order. These internal conflicts represented far more than cliched or stereotyped depictions of strong black women.

    Attracting new audiences, exploring contemporary issues, and addressing themes of injustice are important for the future of opera. We are fortunate that both Chicago opera companies are responding to these trends with two new productions, both of which are directed by the talented director Tazewell Thompson. Local audiences can look forward to his acclaimed production and Midwest premiere of Blue with Lyric Opera later in the season.

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