Vocal Arts Ensemble honors the slain Matthew Shepard with a 'fusion oratorio' by its artistic director

Craig Hella Johnson was deeply affected by the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old who was brutally beaten and tied to fence outside of Laramie, Wyo. because he was gay.

click to enlarge Craig Hella Johnson, seen conducting, wants to make sure Shepard is never forgotten. - Photo:  Courtesy of Vocal Arts Ensemble
Photo: Courtesy of Vocal Arts Ensemble
Craig Hella Johnson, seen conducting, wants to make sure Shepard is never forgotten.
The Vocal Arts Ensemble takes a bold step forward this weekend with two performances of the Grammy-nominated Considering Matthew Shepard, written by its music director, Craig Hella Johnson. While the ensemble’s mission is to “raise and nurture the public’s appreciation of the life-enriching qualities of the choral arts,” this work also has a political dimension with crucially urgent resonance. 

On an October night in 1998, 21-year-old Shepard was brutally beaten and tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyo. because he was gay. He died six days later. Two men were convicted of his murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Shepard’s death — and especially the gruesome circumstances — transformed the diminutive University of Wyoming student into an icon for the LGBTQ community and helped prompt the passing of the 2009 federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

In 1998, music director Johnson was 36 and had just started conducting men's chorus Chanticleer. “Matthew Shepard’s death affected me greatly and I always wanted to respond in some way,” he says.

Exactly what form that would take at first proved elusive. Fourteen years later, ideas began to take shape. Johnson was teaching at the University of Texas in Austin and leading Conspirare, the Grammy-winning professional vocal ensemble he founded in 1991.

“I told my Conspirare colleagues, ‘Let’s do a workshop performance of something,’ and that forced me to start working,” Johnson says. He began curating a libretto incorporating poetry and interviews with people who knew Shepard. 

The workshop performance that took place in 2014 left Johnson dissatisfied. By then he had also become music director and conductor with Vocal Arts Ensemble, so he consulted with Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director. After reading the score, Mirageas told him, “What’s missing is Matthew.” 

“Craig was on his way to Laramie to meet with Matt’s parents and I encouraged him to ask them for access to Matt’s writings,” Mirageas says. 

Johnson forged an immediate connection with Judy, Shepard’s mother. In the wake of their son’s death, Judy and her husband Dennis had established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to support LGBTQ youth. In an interview with Boston radio station WBUR last year, Judy said that she honored Johnson’s request because he wanted to present the son they had lost. “To us he was Matt,” she said. “And we just felt that Craig had a real feel for who Matt was. We’ve officially endorsed very few projects, and this was one of them.”

In Considering Matthew Shepard, Johnson composed what he has referred to as a “three-part fusion oratorio.” It features different singers as soloists and uses a small instrumental ensemble. Shepard’s words are incorporated into a libretto that includes passages from the medieval Benedictine abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen, Persian Sunni poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, Romantic Age English poet William Blake, contemporary poets Michael Dennis Browne, W. S. Merwin and Lesléa Newman, and Johnson himself.

“I wanted to create the broadest tent possible and still create a cohesive work of art,” Johnson says. “We heal as a community and the work invites listeners to experience a large palette of humanity, textually and musically.”

The title is a deliberate choice. The audience is challenged to reflect on Shepard, on the environment he inhabited and the people who knew him. Bach’s great oratorios serve as a sort of template, with the central section of Considering Matthew Shepard’s three parts entitled “Passion.” The musical palette includes Classical oratorio, Gregorian chant, Country, Gospel and Spirituals, scored for piano, strings, guitar and percussion. 

Clocking in at about 100 minutes, Considering Matthew Shepard’s prologue opens with Bach’s familiar Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by a lonesome cowboy yodel, a chorale celebrating the natural beauty of Wyoming and “An Ordinary Boy,” based on Shepard’s writings as well as interviews with his mother. 

The “Passion” section encompasses Shepard’s death as observed by a variety of witnesses, the most poignant being the fence he was tied to, whose “testimony” appears four times throughout this section. 

“Lesléa Newman’s poems about the fence moved me deeply,” Johnson says. “She recognized that this powerful inanimate object was the only witness to the day before, the beating, the day afterward and all the people who came as if they were on a pilgrimage.”

Conspirare presented the world premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard in Austin, Texas last February, with Johnson conducting. The group released a two-CD recording in September — it was nominated for a Best Surround Sound Grammy.

There have been subsequent performances, but this is the Midwest premiere. That is the result of ongoing interest by Cincinnati Opera’s Mirageas. 

Mirageas recruited Omer Ben Seadia to be director. A 2014 graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music’s program in opera directing, she has impressive credits throughout the U.S.

Ben Seadia says the work’s music is vulnerable and honest in a profoundly moving way, adding that she takes the title seriously. “What I hope to do is highlight the drama that’s already there,” she says via Skype from Israel. “We don’t have a director’s conventional tools, so I want to help the chorus work through what they as a group can express emotionally.”

For Johnson, there is a special urgency for continued performances. “I did a performance with Harvard students last March, and not one of them knew about Matt,” he says. So it’s his job to make sure Shepard is not forgotten.

The Vocal Arts Ensemble performs CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD 8 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at Gallagher Theater, Xavier University. Tickets and more info: vaecinci.org.

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