Defying the threat of insults, injuries and even death from the Ku Klux Klan and others, scores of white and African American Freedom Riders traveled across the South in 1961 to challenge the non-enforcement of federal court rulings that banned segregated buses.
The then-controversial initiative stands as one of the shining if ugly milestones of the civil rights movement, one that is commemorated in “Freedom Ride,” a new opera that will receive its world premiere during performances Feb. 8, 14 and 16 by the Chicago Opera Theater.
Although the company has emphasized new and off-beat works during its 47-year-history, including more than 65 Chicago debuts, this is just its second world premiere, following Stewart Copeland’s “The Invention of Morel” in 2017.
Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya first learned of the opera about eight years ago when she asked Boston-based composer Dan Shore about possible works of his to perform, and he sent a list that had an off-hand mention of “Freedom Ride” at the bottom. She was immediately intrigued.
“I read about it,” she said. “I looked at the music, and I just fell in love with the subject matter and with Sylvie, the main character, and the way Dan shapes the story. I said, you know what, this is the one I want to stand behind.”
After she took over as music director of the Chicago Opera Theater in 2017, the 90-minute work seemed like the ideal opera for the company to back. It commissioned the work’s completion and undertook two workshop performances, including an orchestral one in Boston last fall.
“It is exciting to me,” Yankovskaya said, “that we can feature a story that’s about a community and a part of American history that has not yet been very actively featured on operatic stages.”
With a cast of 12 (six soloists and six singers from the chorus) plus adult and children’s choruses, “Freedom Ride,” directed by Tazewell Thompson, focuses on Sylvie Davenport (soprano Dara Rahming), a fictional African American student from New Orleans. She gradually decides to become a Freedom Rider through the inspiration of activist Clayton Thomas (baritone Robert Sims), sacrificing family and potentially her future.
“Sylvie is an incredible leading character in general, female or otherwise,” Yankovskaya said. “She is not beholden to anybody. And the opera is not about her trying to escape something or trying to fight back some antagonist. It’s about her coming to a difficult decision over the course of the opera.”
Rahming, for whom Shore originally conceived the role of Sylvie, was attracted to the character in part because of her own personal history. Although she was born in the Bahamas and moved to Miami when she was 12, her mother grew up in Georgia and took part in sit-ins in the 1960s.
“So, I take the stories that my mother has told me, that she has experienced,” the soprano said of her approach to the role, “and just my own feeling of being determined. What type of person would say, ‘I’m going to give up the chance to have an education and go to jail for what is right, so that the generation after me will have chance to have a better life.’’’
Shore did not set out to write an opera about the Freedom Riders. Instead, the subject matter found him. The composer had already written two chamber operas that are mostly performed by university opera programs and was teaching at Xavier University, a historically black institution in New Orleans, alongside Rahming who was also on the faculty.
The head of Longue Vue House and Gardens attended a school banquet in 2011 and heard a group of student singers in an excerpt from one of Shore’s works. He invited the singers to the historic house museum to perform a new work by the composer – something related to New Orleans and the civil rights movement.
Quickly embracing the project, Shore got all the books he could find on the two subjects, and he discovered that one of the first groups of Freedom Riders had been secretly accorded refuge in a dormitory at Xavier after they were attacked in Alabama.
“I thought, ‘This is astonishing,’” he said. “All these people were right here in this dormitory building that I’m walking past to get to my classes. So, ‘I thought this is fate, we have to write something celebrating the Freedom Riders.’”
While teaching in New Orleans from 2008 through 2015, Shore absorbed the music all around him, and the score for “Freedom Ride” draws on jazz and gospel and even incorporates two original spirituals that he wrote for the chorus.
The composer had the opportunity to work with a historically black choir at Xavier and musicians in New Orleans to test what worked and didn’t work in his score, and the school organized a panel discussion that featured actual Freedom Riders, who offered feedback on the opera. “The long gestation period helped me at least try to get closer in terms of a degree of honesty or accuracy,” he said.
Rahming admits to some complicated feelings as she prepares to portray Sylvie and help send “Freedom Rider” into the world. “Nine years ago, the thought was, ‘Who would do that? I don’t think I would be that type of person.’
“But today, as we think about what is going on with Black Lives Matter, Time’s Up and all these different movements of young people, which is what the Freedom Ride was, my hope is that people will watch this opera and realize that they can be that person who says, ‘No more. I’m going to stand up and do this.’”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.