By New Journal and Guide Staff
An opera at the Harrison Opera House on January 26 and January 28 will pay tribute to the life and work of William Still, the “Forgotten Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still, who was a Black abolitionist and writer, helped some 800 enslaved people escape to freedom while serving as a Philadelphia, Pa., conductor of the Underground Railroad.
“Sanctuary Road” will make its Virginia premiere in Norfolk and then move on to Richmond and Northern Virginia in early February. The Friday night performance will be preceded by a discussion by Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, noted Historian, Author and Norfolk State University professor.
William Still’s name isn’t as well-known as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass or John Brown. However, it is his writings in his 1871 book, The Underground Railroad Records that documented a staggering 745 accounts of the men and women fleeing slavery in the South for freedom in the North. Approximately thirty percent, or 242 accounts, were provided by escapees from Virginia, including Clarissa Davis, who fled Portsmouth, Va., and Henry “Box” Brown, who fled Richmond, Va.
Still’s stories form the basis for the opera Sanctuary Road which is composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravex. The words of “Sanctuary Road” are delivered entirely in song and are a haunting reminder of the dangerous journeys of the enslaved Black men and women as they sought to be free from slavery in America.
Sanctuary Road premiered in 2022 by North Carolina Opera. Virginia Opera’s performances of Sanctuary Road mark not only the Commonwealth of Virginia Premiere, but also only the third production of the opera in the United States.
“At Virginia Opera, we are committed to bringing stories that resonate with the heart and soul of our community. Sanctuary Road is not only a tribute to our region’s rich history, but a testament to the enduring power of opera to connect us to our shared past and inspire our future,” said Virginia Opera’s Artistic Director Adam Turner.
He continued, “The final words of the opera could not be more powerful and resonant, evoking such a jubilant expression of freedom – ‘Shout from every rooftop. Loud as can be: free.’”
The production will be conducted by Dr. Everett McCorvey, the founder and music director of the American Spiritual Ensemble, the director and executive producer of University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, and the president of Global Creative Connections. PBS has produced six documentaries featuring Dr. McCorvey’s work. This appearance marks Dr. McCorvey’s conducting debut at Virginia Opera.
Kimille Howard is at the helm of this visionary landmark production in her Virginia Opera directorial debut. The New York-based director, deviser, writer, and filmmaker has earned recognition at the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington National Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and the Glimmerglass Festival.
Sanctuary Road presents a collection of songs that artfully weave together the themes and stories of the Underground Railroad. The production is a moving mosaic of narratives, paying homage to the countless brave individuals who sought freedom through this clandestine network.
The production features a stellar cast, all making their Virginia Opera mainstage debuts, including Virginia native Damien Geter as William Still, Laquita Mitchell as soprano soloist, Terrence Chin-Loy as tenor soloist, Virginia native Adam Richardson as baritone soloist, and Tesia Kwarteng, graduate of Virginia Opera’s Herndon Foundation Emerging Artists Program, as mezzo-soprano soloist. Commenting on and participating in the dramatic action, the Virginia Opera Chorus of over 40 performers promises to provide a powerfully dynamic contribution.
This poignant production, just over an hour in duration, is produced in partnership with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, promising an unforgettable and deeply moving experience for all who attend.
For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit Virginia Opera’s website at https://vaopera.org/sanctuary-road.