They had me at the choral beginning. Yet, I had qualms about attending Sanctuary Road. It is a modern opera about slavery, and I suspected I was in for a gut-wrenching experience of man’s inhumanity to man. Beyond the weight of the subject matter, how would this work as an opera? On the upbeat, opera has never shied away from social issues, but has been a tool for addressing them. Powerful social issues are the driving force for many of our most popular operas. I once wrote in a post and I’ll stand by it, “Science helps us to control our world; the arts and humanities help us to control our selves”. Yes, Sanctuary Road takes us deep into the painful world of slavery, but this work also attends to the wounds we suffer with beautiful music, reviving us with hope, and inspiring us with the beauty of those who will do the right thing at great risk to themselves. Sanctuary Road presents a powerful ode to our human need to be free and equal in our rights as human beings and the sacrifices we will make for it. All of this was packed into one hour.

One important thing to know about Sanctuary Road is that it is not fiction. The libretto by Mark Campbell is based on the histories and records in The Underground Railroad Records, written and published in 1872 by William Still. The librettist extracted from this manuscript several of the more poignant personal stories of several of the slaves escaping their owners. They were aided by what is widely known now as the Underground Railroad, though it was not a railroad and was not underground; it was a loose collection of networks of people, both white and black, who strongly opposed slavery and were willing to risk prison and other penalties to help desperate escapees gain their freedom; the slaves risked much more. The estimate is that when the Civil War began, there were about 4,000,000 slaves in the United States and in the forty years leading up to the war, about 100,000 slaves had escaped their captors with the help of the Underground Railroad. Mr. Still, a major conductor of the Railroad, and his family in Philadelphia are credited with having assisted almost 800 slaves gain their freedom. The penalties for both slaves and their enablers were harsh when caught; Mr. Still hid his writings in a cemetery as they were compiled to avoid detection. According to Mr. Campbell, the opera is meant to honor Mr. Still and others who had the courage to do something.

Sanctuary Road premiered in 2018 as an oratorio; later recast with staging, it premiered as an opera in 2022. In Virginia Opera’s performance in Fairfax on Saturday evening, Composer Paul Moravec’s tonal, melodic music and affecting arias and ensemble vocals gave strong support to the powerful stories that unfolded. Conductor Everett McCorvey led the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in an outstanding performance; Maestro McCorvey was also the opera’s conductor for its premiere performance in 2022. Time and again I found myself making a mental note to mention how beautiful the music was. The 39 choristers were in costumes, serving as supernumeraries on stage; as a group the chorus played a substantial role in the opera, particularly in the menacing vocal number “Reward”. The chorus led by Associate Conductor and Chorus Master Brandon Eldredge sang with feeling and a marvelous sound. The choral music was also a highlight of the opera. I hope to have additional opportunities to attend works composed by Mr. Moravec.

The cast of five soloists was anchored by bass-baritone Damien Geter who portrayed William Still with excellent vocals, displaying gravity and determination to “write, record, chronicle”. The other four vocalists played different characters from the engaging stories told. They included soprano Laquita F. Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng, tenor Terrence Chin-Loy, and baritone Adam Richardson, all accomplished, excellent vocalists. I enjoyed all the solo arias and ensemble numbers. My two favorites were the showstopping aria “Rain” sung with such clarity and beauty by Ms. Mitchell and the early quartet “Free” sung with gorgeous harmony by Mitchell, Kuarteng, Chin-Loy, and Richardson.

Director Kimille Howard’s staging was effective and affecting, with a simple set, often with Mr. Still’s writing desk as the focal point, and a few props, backed by a screen showing images of documents and moving landscapes (kudos to Projection Designer David Murakami and Lighting Designer John D. Alexander). The choristers served as townspeople sometimes seated and sometimes in the action. The scenes for the different stories were semi-staged, often commanded by Mr. Still at his desk. The costumes were interesting, mostly middle to upper class finery of the times; I thought it contributed an uplifting aspect to the story (kudos to Costume Coordinator Pat Seyller and Wig and Make-up Designer James P. McGough). The character portrayals were well done by the soloists. Though fear, anxiety, and desperation ruled the stories, some had amusing aspects, such as two sisters fooling white passengers by singing about their trip to see dear sick Aunt Abigail.

The brevity of the opera is perhaps an advantage but also a limitation. In particular, the powerful story of William Still’s brother sprang and ended too quickly. I would have liked to have gotten to know the characters in all the stories better; then the tears that had welled up in my eyes at the end would have been tears rolling down my cheeks through much of the opera.

The travesty of slavery in the U.S. is of course well known. Sanctuary Road allowed me to experience not only the fear, anxiety, and desperation of the slaves, but also the courage of the men and women forsaking their family and friends, risking their lives to be free, and to experience the beauty of those who bravely aided and abetted them, whites as well as people of color. All of this with such beautiful music and singing. This is an opera I would go see again; I only wish that Sanctuary Road was a mini-series. Sanctuary Road is a gem with star quality. We need more like this one, operas that not only take us to dark places but also show us the hope for deliverance from evil.

The Fan Experience: Performances of Sanctuary Road were scheduled for January 26, 28 in Norfolk, February 3, 4 in Fairfax, and February 9, 11 in Richmond. The opera is written and performed in English with English subtitles on screen projections. The opera lasted for one hour without an intermission. The George Mason University Center for the Performing Arts theater, located on the GMU campus, is moderate in size, offering seat prices in different ranges – the same being true for other venues.

Many thanks to Virginia Opera for providing its audience with a variety of operas from different ages, including modern operas and for their theme of showcasing operas with connections to Virginia. VO’s next production this season will be Madama Butterfly in Norfolk on March 8, 9, 10 and Fairfax on 16, 17 and Richmond on 22, 24. See this link for details. VO also just announced their 2024-2025 season which will feature the premiere of a new opera, Virginia v. Loving, with music composed by none other than Damien Geter.

I always recommend the online presentations, given by Joshua Borths, Virginia Opera’s scholar in residence, which originate about a month before the performances and remain online for viewing. Viewing in real time makes it possible to ask questions of Mr. Borths. The online video for Sanctuary Road, can be accessed at this link, where Mr. Borths focuses on the operatic aspects of the opera, leaving the associated history for the pre-opera talks.

For Sanctuary Road, the pre-opera talks feature distinguished experts in black history. The pre-opera talk in Fairfax was given by Dr. Spencer Crew, currently the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University and Emeritus Director of the National Museum of African American History and the National Museum of American History. Dr. Crew gave an interesting and highly informative talk about the Underground Railroad.

Original Article
Opera Gene