Feb. 11—A woman gives riveting testimony about American tragedy: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the AIDS epidemic.
She explores cultural and political milestones from the ’90s tech boom, the election of Barack Obama and Roe v. Wade.
Showcasing the resonant voice of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, the song cycle of “A Standing Witness” is a ravenously ambitious piece that dares to produce a sweeping retrospective of American history across the last half-century. Starring Santa Fe resident Graham and the Copland House Ensemble, the monodrama comes to Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Feb. 16.
The piece is a musical collaboration between Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Danielpour created the work specifically for Graham, a Santa Fe and Metropolitan Opera regular.
“Richard Danielpour sought me out in 2018,” Graham said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “He had been talking about this piece that describes the American zeitgeist in 50 years.
“He always held me up as some sort of quintessential American artist,” she said. “I was really honored and flattered about that. He said, ‘You’re the one that got away. I’ve written for all of your friends,’ and he has.”
Danielpour has penned music for opera stars Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves and Isabel Leonard.
The song cycle testimonies open with the turmoil of 1968 and its assassinations and riots, Muhammad Ali and the draft, the Nixon presidency and Watergate, and ends with the “greed is good” ’90s, the cataclysm of 9/11 and the coronavirus.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to revisit things that seem so far away but whose relevance are still present,” Graham said. “It gives us a new perspective on where we are now.”
Each testimony merits a different musical genre. Danielpour’s writing knits together jazz, bluegrass, elegy and ragtime.
“I like the one about Woodstock a lot because it talks about music,” Graham said. “I was very young; I was born in 1960. I know a lot of people who were at Woodstock. There is that sort of rhythmic resonance. We mention Jimi Hendrix and how he played the Star Spangled Banner at the very end.
“We have a whole song about Muhammad Ali, but we never say it was Muhammad Ali. He protested the Vietnam War and he didn’t go. There’s one song about Watergate. It has sarcasm and I like that.”
The piece was supposed to debut at Tanglewood in 2020, but COVID-19 shut it down. Graham cocooned in Santa Fe during the lockdown and called Danielpour.
“When we were delayed, I called him to say, ‘This COVID has changed our world.’ “
Danielpour and Dove added a section weaving the coronavirus with Black Lives Matter.
“The poetry is not literal in any sense,” Graham said. “We’re capturing the social and cultural consciousness around these events. Rita’s poetry is so evocative of a time and feeling.”
The 70-minute piece features Copland Ensemble flutist Carol Wincenc, clarinetist Benjamin Fingland, violinist Suliman Tekalli, violist Melissa Reardon, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and pianist Michael Boriskin.
Copland House is a creative center for American music based at Aaron Copland’s New York home.
“After every performance when we take our bows and go into the wings, there are tears,” Graham said. “It’s just a very powerful journey.”
‘A Standing Witness’
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the Copland House Ensemble
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16
WHERE: Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe
HOW MUCH: $35-$115, plus fees, at performancesantafe.org, lensic.org, 505-988-1234