Several weeks ago, I was getting some work done while on a flight from Orlando back to Chicago. Part of my agenda was to digest the libretto of Craig Hella Johnson’s poignant oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard. I already owned the Grammy-nominated recording on Harmonia Mundi and had been profoundly moved by it, but this was the first time I had actually read the entire text itself. I was, quite frankly, undone. The plane vanished from my cognizance, along with the din from the overwrought Disney vacation families that dotted the cabin. I sat there with tears streaming down my face. I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see a startled flight attendant named Tammy. Her eyes softened as she said, “Here’s your Diet Coke, hon.”
The couple beside me then engaged me in one of those pithy conversations one sometimes has with strangers. We discussed Matthew Shepard’s death and legacy today, here at a time in which societal unrest and bigotry are sadly on the rise. Shepard was the University of Wyoming student who in 1998 was tied to a fence and murdered in one of the most horrific gay hate crimes in modern history. His death led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, and the formation of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which promotes antiviolence awareness through a variety of initiatives. He has also inspired a plethora of writings, films, and musical projects from the arts community, [one of the earliest and most widely known being Moisés Kaufman’s 2000 play The Laramie Project]. Craig Hella Johnson’s 2016 modern-day Passion is quite conceivably the most powerful artistic response to Shepard’s story to date.
Johnson is an interesting guy. His conversational style reveals an understated intensity graced by palpable brilliance and enveloping warmth as we discuss a journey of artistic creation that became “deeply personal” for him. Born in Crow Wing County, MN, Johnson began piano studies in childhood. He attended St. Olaf College and pursued graduate work at the University of Illinois and Juilliard before scoring a fellowship to study with Helmuth Rilling at the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart. He later completed his doctorate at Yale. Johnson has directed choral ensembles throughout the country, was director of choral activities at the University of Texas, and is now a resident artist at Texas State. Most significantly, he is the founder and artistic director of the Austin-based, Grammy Award–winning ensemble Conspirare, with whom he is leading a national tour of Considering Matthew Shepard this fall and spring that first comes to Ravinia on September 12.
Johnson vividly recalls learning of Matthew Shepard’s murder while he was conducting a rehearsal as the interim artistic director of Chanticleer. A vocalist approached him whose name also happened to be Matt (indie singer and songwriter Matt Alber, who, in a bit of spiritual synchronicity, will join Conspirare for the performance at Ravinia). “He came to me in tears and said, ‘His name was Matt,’ ” Johnson recalls. “My emotional response was really strong. The whole thing embodied culturally what is a gay man’s fear. There was something about the picture that was such a precise projection of hatred that was so shocking, but also truthful. I wanted to respond.”
The libretto was crafted by the composer in collaboration with poet Michael Dennis Browne. It is remarkably well done. There are quotes from Hildegard of Bingen, Dante, and William Blake, as well as original texts and writings from Shepard and his family. Wyoming poets Sue Wallis and John D. Nesbitt bookend the piece geographically. Excerpts from Lesléa Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard provide an ineffably affecting element with the personification of the fence upon which Shepard was brutalized. “I kept being drawn to the fence.” Johnson recalls, “I encountered Lesléa’s book and it became the central portion, which I consider the Passion section. The movement ‘All of Us’ [with Johnson’s own text] is the heart of the piece. Beyond all our names for ourselves, or our status, race, or genders, where do we find unity as a human family? My intention was that all these texts represent a swath of diversity in place and time and weave the largest tapestry possible.”
Much of the power in Shepard’s story lies in his commonplace normality. He could have been anyone’s child, friend, or kid brother. He was, as the libretto observes, an “ordinary boy.” “He looked like so many average folks; you feel ‘this could happen to me,’ ” Johnson affirms. “It felt personal. One reason for that was Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. We saw them. They were quick to say, ‘We are not going to let this death be in vain, we will do everything we can to erase hatred and hope this does not happen to any other child.’ It was really Judy who guided me the first time I met her, when I asked how she handled all this. She said, ‘You know Matthew Shepard, the name known around the world. But our son was Matt. We do the work of Matthew Shepard, but at home we grieve our son Matt.’ I knew I had to bring ‘Matt’ into this; who Matt was, beyond just a death story.”
The work’s title is denoted literally. Johnson doesn’t proselytize or judge. He considers. “That was intentional,” he explains. “If I express all my anger, I get in the way of someone else experiencing theirs. I want people to have their own experience. We don’t shy away from what happened; the brutal part of the story is present. I believe in oratorio as a conduit for the universal, so that means I need to get out of the way.” Johnson’s insight is particularly pointed in the interlude “I Am Like You” which challenges listeners to examine their own potential for projection of hatred. “We have the audience members sit for four minutes with very quiet music, unadorned, with lots of rests in between, having to feel the words. Am I like you? In what way do I allow my fears to be projected on the ‘other’ to live a sense of that separate self? People saw the truth in what happened to Matt Shepard; that hatred based in fear is real. And we all experience that.”
Johnson’s compositional style has been described as “collage,” a pastiche of disparate influences with bits of pop, folk, and jazz coursing through an essentially classical structure. The work begins, appropriately for what is fundamentally a Passion, with a quotation from Bach; the opening measures of Ave Maria. The initial choral entrance then gives way to an idiomatic cowboy song, which immediately establishes locale. “I wanted to allow a naturalness for a modern audience,” Johnson explains. “There is a big part of me that is pretty straight-up orthodox choral guy. I trained in Bach. I love those big forms. I have a foot firmly planted in the canon, and I could be happy living my life with them, the Passions and the Elgar things. The commitment to oratorio was also there. I am sad to see that form die away. There are not many composers writing oratorio anymore; it certainly isn’t in our listening palate all that much, so I am interested in keeping this larger storytelling medium in play. I also was interested, for musical and cultural reasons, to have as broad an audience as possible invited in. I wanted both musical integrity and accessibility. I had an advantage in that I was not labeled early on as a composer, so I didn’t have pressure to see what my ‘voice’ was. I tried to serve this story, and I tried to honor that in the musically pluralistic world we are living in, having grown up with the iPod shuffle becoming everybody’s norm. So nothing I do here is unusual in terms of how people listen. It is maybe unusual in the concert hall for purists, but I wanted to preserve a naturalness.
“This may sound unusual, but whenever I had ego involved in the composition and would think maybe this would be clever or this would make an impression—when I felt that coming up, I would think, no, I am going to try to avoid self-interest. I just want the story to be told. I had a real hope that this would honor Matt Shepard.”
Getting the oratorio on its feet was an emotional time for all involved. “The story is a lot to hold. To ask a row of tenors and basses to sing those awful words in the movement “A Protestor”—‘The only good fag is a fag that’s dead’—those were challenging things. I was incredibly moved by the singers’ dedication in bringing this forth. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and I still feel it today. The way they have carried this with such care is beyond what I can ever adequately express my thanks for.
“I love the experience of this piece. Every bit of investment I made has been paid back by the connection with the singers, and particularly by the audience. The response has been beautiful. I think of the LGBTQ things, but for me this is a larger consideration. This projection we do, this pushing out against that which we are fearful of, this way we distance ourselves from one another, that is just a human trait. I am moved that people are receiving this beyond just the LGBTQ aspect; that it is a remembrance of who we are more deeply.”
Although Johnson has attended Ravinia as a “happy listener,” this performance of Considering Matthew Shepard marks his formal festival debut. “I feel so fortunate to be coming there at all with my cherished colleagues in Conspirare, but to be coming to share this piece is beyond special. I think people are naturally a little fearful of a concert about Matthew Shepard and fear it will be a downer. But I think that presenting this piece at Ravinia is also an invitation for them to contemplate their own story. And it is actually a piece that offers a great deal of hope. We always leave the experience, audience and singers alike, lifted up and joyous. This has been a remarkable aspect.”
Visitors to the University of Wyoming can find a bench on campus dedicated to Matthew Shepard, inscribed with the words “He continues to make a difference.” He does, whether through the intense conversation I had with a pair of strangers on an airplane or in the creative consciousness of an artist like Craig Hella Johnson.
“I often refer to Judy and Dennis as ‘warriors for love.’ ” Johnson’s tone is gentle, yet resolute. “I am putting a stake in the ground that I want to lay claim to that myself. Not that I do that in any shape or form like they do. But I definitely claim that whatever I am participating in, whether it’s a concert of Bach motets or Considering Matthew Shepard, I hope it can be an offering to create an expansive experience that can help us to wake up and come home to ourselves, to understand ourselves more deeply, and to love one another.” ▪
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.