Dan Shore started working on his one-act opera, Freedom Ride, nine years ago. It was the 50th anniversary of the Congress of Racial Equality-organized protests that actually integrated public transportation in the United States, after the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation violated the constitution. Shore, a composer who also writes his own librettos, was teaching at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and had been asked to create something that would celebrate both that city and the civil rights movement. When he saw the 2011 PBS Freedom Riders documentary (based on Raymond Arsenault’s 2007 book of the same title), and also learned that Xavier had provided housing for some of the riders, he had found his subject. Research, writing, and workshopping followed.
Freedom Ride’s world premiere production, commissioned by Chicago Opera Theater, opened Saturday at the Studebaker. Under Tazewell Thompson’s direction, it’s a fast-paced 90-minute account of how a fictional New Orleans woman, Sylvie Davenport, decided to sign on for the risky ride to Jackson, Mississippi. We see her motivation grow, from a hoped-for personal relationship with the recruiter at the start, to something broader and more deeply principled. Ultimately she makes the trip in spite of his rejection of her and over her family’s well-grounded fears. In real life, freedom riders were beaten, fire-bombed, arrested, and imprisoned.
There’s a large cast of characters, including Sylvie’s mother, brother, and best friend, Ruby; preachers and organizers; assorted volunteers, and two sizeable choruses, one of which is made up of children. It’s a lot of people and story to process in a one-act, and the result, on opening night, was arguably more successful as a song cycle than a fully-developed opera. It might not have helped that the announced lead, soprano Lauren Michelle, was missing (for personal reasons, according to COT), though her understudy, Dara Rahming, stepped smoothly into the role of Sylvie. In fact, Rahming has sung this role before, and, Shore said in a pre-performance talk, he created it with her in mind.
The switch also allowed us to see soprano Kimberly E. Jones, a Chicago favorite, in Rahming’s place as Ruby. Among the rest of this talented cast: baritone Robert Sims, hitting the right dramatic and vocal notes as the organizer, Clayton Thomas; recent Ryan Opera Center alum Whitney Morrison in a bitter protest against rocking the boat; and a winning performance by tenor Tyrone Chambers II as Sylvie’s brother, Russell. The music–which Shore says was inspired by everything he was hearing in the Big Easy–ranges from gospel, blues, and spirituals to a “barbershop” quartet. It’s not nuanced: when a Jewish character thinks of his past, for example, the audience is flashed a hora. But Shore has produced an often rousing score that brings an important chapter of American history to life. COT Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts the Chicago Sinfonietta. v