(Was everybody aware that the Bernadette Peters version is not on YouTube? This is a travesty.)
Back towards the end of June, Ms. Amanda Johnston, our fabulous vocal coach here at Ole Miss, emailed me saying that she had been approached by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a national organization on (you guessed it) Southern Food, hosted here on campus. They had come up with the idea to do a collard green “opera” and she had suggested me as the composer.
I have to admit, I had to think about it for about 10 minutes. For one, they wanted 30 minutes of music in about 3 months, which is a ton of work. Secondly, what the heck is a collard green “opera”, anyways? But in the end, I decided that it was too good of an opera-tunity to pass up. (I’ve been waiting 2 months to type that.)
The Southern Foodways Alliance gave me a set of poems to start from. Apparently, the world’s largest collard green festival is hosted in
Auden Ayden, North Carolina every year. In 1984, they hosted a poetry contest and published a whole book of poems on collard greens, wittily titled Leaves of Greens: the Collard Poems. To my surprise, there were actually some really good things to be found in there. There were also some really bad poems. Were you aware, dear reader, that there is an entire sub-genre of poems dealing with collard greens that are all parodies of famous poems? I counted 3 “How do I love thee?’s, 1 “‘Twas the night before Christmas” and 1 “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” (The last actually made it in the opera.) It was akin to reading that book of poems about Mississippi your class published in 4th grade.
I knew from the get go, the actual content of the opera would be the hardest part. I literally can’t say the words “collard green opera” without laughing. And I’m writing this thing. So the first issue was how to write 30 minutes of music about collard greens without it being a novelty piece. I decided then, that instead of explicitly talking about collard greens the entire time, we could talk about other things, but through the lens of collard greens. That proposed the question of what other issues to deal with that were still relevant to the vegetable at hand. Then, one magical Sunday, while eating Sunday dinner with my extended family at Grammy’s, I came to the realization that for us Southerners, eating food is rarely purely about the food. We tie food to very specific times and places. For instance, eating Sunday dinner at your grandmother’s, cooking with your mom, throwing mashed potatoes at your sister’s head, that sort of thing. From then on, it was settled. The subject matter would be how we, as Southerners, view food in society, focusing on collard greens the entire time.
I ended up stitching poems from the aforementioned collection, plus some others that fit very well in the structure, Doctor-Atomic-Style. From there, I separated them out into 5 different scenes. Scene One is a very Psalm-like and proclamatory chorus dealing with different preparations and praises of collard greens. Scene Two deals with collard greens and parents. A woman recalls how she and her mother used to make collard greens, a man remembers he and his father tending after his mother’s collard garden after she passed. Scene Three shows how collard greens became a cultural symbol, with a special reference to Thelonious Monk. Scene Four, similarly to Scene Two, deals with grandparents, with just a bit more nostalgia. Scene Five wraps up the work in a huge chorus for the whole company in general praise of collard greens. (Every line end-rhymes with collard. Have fun with that, vocal coach!) (Also, if somebody wants to get me an IPA of the different pronunciations of the word ‘collard,’ I want it framed above my mantle.)
I keep using scare quotes around “opera” because this is anything but a conventional opera. It’s turned into much more of a staged oratorio or cantata. Lots of chorus, no real plot, etc. Think La Damnation de Faust minus the plot and plus a lot of hamhocks. Maybe something closer to El Niño, but then again, a lot more hamhocks.
At present moment, I am about halfway done with the music. The full work is due to be completed by mid-September and we will start rehearsals immediately after. We meet next week to finalize casting. Typing that was really scary, in that we are choosing people to sing music which I have not even written yet. After casting is done, we start work with the costume designer and it’s a big snowball from there! All of this has been so surreal and more than I could have ever dreamed of. I keep joking that if you had told me 5 years ago that one day I would write an “opera” about collard greens, I would probably have told you, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” But in all seriousness, I cannot thank Amanda Johnston and the Southern Foodways Alliance enough for this opportunity. (A very special shoutout to John T. Edge and Melissa Hall for all their generous help!)
The première is October 30th, 2011, with the University of Mississippi Opera Theatre Ensemble, at the Lyric Theatre in Oxford, MS, as part of the 2011 Southern Foodways Alliance. I will be sure to announce more and maybe get up some sneak previews as the piece gets completed and we get closer to that time!
And as I announced on Facebook, if you see me anywhere, ask me if my opera is done yet. If I say no, slap me in the face. Thank you and good night.