OUT FROM SLAVERY: Virginia Opera’s “Sanctuary Road” gives voice to enslaved people who freed themselves through the Underground Railroad.

Known as “the father of the Underground Railroad,” William Still heard many remarkable stories as he helped shepherd roughly 800 formerly enslaved people to freedom from his home in Philadelphia. But the most incredible story he encountered had a deeply personal connection.

In August 1850, a formerly enslaved man named Peter Freedman came to Still, hoping he could help him reconnect with his family members. More than 40 years earlier, Freedman was separated from his parents because of slavery. Now, having purchased his own freedom, Freedman was looking for them.

Still asked Freedman question after question, as though he was trying to find some kind of inconsistency in Freedman’s story. Finally, Still sat down next to Freedman and looked at him squarely in the face.

“Suppose I should tell you that I am your brother?” Still said. He took Freedman to their mother who cried “O, Lord, how long have I prayed to see my two sons!” as tears ran down her cheeks.

The chance reuniting of Still and Freedman is just one of the remarkable real-life stories recounted in “Sanctuary Road,” a sung work that gives voice to enslaved people who freed themselves through the Underground Railroad. Originally written by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell as an oratorio, “Sanctuary Road” will be staged as an opera in Richmond on Feb. 9 and 11 by Virginia Opera.

The piece is inspired by accounts Still published in his 1872 book “The Underground Railroad Records.”

“It’s because of him that we have this opera, [that] we know these stories. And it’s because of him that so many people escaped bondage,” says director Kimille Howard. “Thank goodness he documented these stories, because we know in more detail what their experiences were like.”

The opera dramatizes real-life escapes from enslavement, including that of Henry Box Brown, who famously mailed himself from Richmond to abolitionists in Philadelphia. It also reenacts the escape of Clarissa Davis from Portsmouth. Davis successfully disguised herself as a white man to find her freedom.

“It’s a compelling, action-packed true story chronicling the journeys of people who made great sacrifices to bring freedom to everyone,” says Howard of the show.

Everett McCorvey, the show’s conductor, says the score blends the sweeping lushness of Giacamo Puccini with the uniquely American sound of Aaron Copland.

“This opera has beautiful melodies and a powerful story, and it ends in triumph,” says McCorvey. “It’s an important American story. It will allow people to learn a lot about what happened during those days, when people were trying to be free, and the sophistication of how they had to do it.”

Tenor Terrence Chin-Loy says McCorvey’s background in American spirtuals, which includes founding and conducting the American Spiritual Ensemble, brings an important dimension to this production.

“So much of the music is inspired by that music and having him has really been invaluable,” says Chin-Loy.

He also credits Virginia Opera for casting soprano soloist Laquita Mitchell, who previously performed in the world premiere of “Sanctuary Road” at Carnegie Hall.

“She was able to give a lot of insight to how the piece has evolved over the years, and she worked directly with the composer, so she was able to give a lot of insight into the music as well,” he says.

Chin-Loy says the opera explores the stories of the Underground Railroad beyond what many of us were taught in school.

“Coming to this opera, you will learn so much more, as I have,” he says. “People feel very moved by these stories of survival and the overall triumphant note of the piece. So many Black stories that are told are often understandably sad and depressing.”

Though dealing with the weighty topic of enslavement, Howard says audiences should expect an uplifting story of resistance.

“The way that this opera is structure focuses on the triumph of these individuals who persevered despite the darkness that loomed,” she says. “It’s focusing on their perspective, their experience. By the end, there’s this feeling of hope and optimism, and I think it’s an important reminder to us all of where we came from.

“There’s still so far we need to go in society, but we’ve come a long way.”

Original Article
By Rich Griset
STYLE Weekly