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Audiences ‘Witness’ stunning, emotional opera

Nicole Zook | Monday, May 1, 2006

Audience members in the O’Laughlin Auditorium at Saint Mary’s this weekend were “witness” to a visually, musically and emotionally stunning world premiere opera of the same name.

Composed and conducted by Saint Mary’s music professor Zae Munn, “Witness” tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan’s infiltration into a tiny Vermont town in 1924 through the eyes of several characters, including Esther (Mallory O’Brien), a 10-year-old Jewish girl, Leanora (Minnita Daniel-Cox), a young black woman, and Johnny Reeves (Brian Manternach), a KKK preacher.

The opera, adapted from a young adult novel by Karen Hesse, spotlights individual characters and their feelings toward the group while also showing how the town itself faces radical changes through the characters’ choices.

Munn said the work is relevant to today’s society because it connects events and feelings of the past to the current political climate in America.

“The Klan draws on the energy and symbols of the church and patriotism to increase its stranglehold on the community, business people look to their bottom line to decide their political alliances, the media is reluctant to move beyond so-called ‘balanced’ reporting and take a righteous, ethically justifiable stand,” Munn said. “The community’s fear of difference, embodied in the Jewish and black characters [Esther and Leanora], [also] connects to today’s concerns with immigration.”

The orchestra, set, lighting design and even the actors themselves carried out Munn’s lofty ideas and connections with extremely powerful imagery. Munn’s dramatic orchestration, tightly and beautifully performed by a seven-piece orchestra, set the tone of the opera from even the dark opening notes.

The sparse, wooden two-level set, designed by Terry Jachimiak II, set the mood by allowing key characters and moments to be elevated on stairs and a platform above the main stage. The set’s rustic, small-town minimalist look helped put the audience focus on the story and characters.

Making the opera’s images particularly powerful was the use of lighting, designed entirely by Saint Mary’s junior Sarah Mikrut. Jachimiak said Mikrut is the first student in years qualified to design a mainstage production at the College – a feat she not only accomplished but also excelled at.

For example, in one scene the townspeople stood above a darkened stage, watching Esther stand on the town’s railroad tracks with her arms spread wide like a cross as a train made visible by a widening light approached her. The audience was so stunned by the violent image that when the lights went out and the orchestra’s train whistle stopped blowing, they did not clap and waited for the lights to come back up on Esther – who was still alive – and Leanora, who saved her, to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Mikrut’s extremely effective use of lighting was also especially prominent in one sickeningly beautiful scene where the Klan starts a bonfire and raises a giant cross in the dark. The shadowy figures of the group with their torches created an extremely tense mood when contrasted with the spotlighted figure of young, black Leanora, who described seeing the Klan and the burning cross on the hill with the scene taking place behind her.

At the end of the song, Klan members donned their robes and pointed hoods onstage, giving the audience both a feeling of immediate repulsion and a sense that the townspeople were being transformed by the racist group.

“I really like the use of the silhouettes to show that this isn’t a specific person,” Mikrut said. “This could be anyone.”

The entire opera gave that impression these characters were everyday people who were slowly being influenced by the message of the Klan. An early song in which churchgoers sang about how “it is up to us, neighbors” to keep their daughters well-behaved could have been any 1920s revival, were it not interspersed with an argument between Viola (Lindsey Anderson) and Harvey Pettibone (Carlton Higginbotham).

Harvey tries to convince his wife that “the Klan does good” and “they take care of their women and liquor can’t tear up a family with them around – we should join them.” It was obvious that Reeves, the preacher, was convinced that he was doing the right thing and that Harvey wasn’t a racist. He was simply a businessman who felt it made sense to join the group.

It was not until near the end of the opera that the townspeople begin to get the idea that something is wrong with the Klan. The group slowly begins to exert serious power by forcing Leanora’s schoolmate Merlin (Douglas Williamson) to poison her well water, and the preacher decides to shoot Esther’s Jewish father to redeem himself for being caught with a young girl.

Eventually, the members of the community begin to realize that they care for one another regardless of race. The town newspaper editor Ramona (Charlotte Orzel) leads the citizens in a song of understanding that persecution has been “giving the power of life and death to a secret organization,” and that “to have our citizens judged by a hidden jury” is “not American.”

The vocal performances – both individually and by the chorus – made the relationships and feelings of community shine through, connecting the audience to the story and making it personal when they dared the audience to “come stand with us in the light” with the last few lines of the opera.

Especially touching were O’Brien and Daniel-Cox as the persecuted youngsters and Erin Anhut as Sara Chickering, an older resident who takes them under her wing. O’Brien gave an extremely strong performance, with clear vocals and a good portrayal of youthful idealism. She easily surpassed the difficult challenge of playing a believable child without sounding like one.

Daniel-Cox’s powerful voice cut through the air and the tension of certain scenes like a knife, and her facial expressions clearly showed a tortured soul looking for acceptance and coming to terms with her own feelings of anger toward the white majority.

Anhut brought the two together for beautifully blended performances of the three women while also telling a familiar story of conflicting feelings. While it seemed she was slightly uncomfortable with their differences – as statements such as “I’ve never had a colored girl in my kitchen before” revealed – she also used her strong vocals to make it clear that she hated everything the Klan stood for.

Daniel-Cox said she felt this story of racism and relationships was important to tell and was happy to travel from her job at the University of Michigan to perform at Saint Mary’s.

“Leanora made a lot of sense to me,” she said. “I think [this story] needs to be said, and I think human tendency is to forget, and to whitewash or to minimize the struggle that this country went through. We have to look at the mistakes of the past and remember them so they never happen again.”

Munn’s opera did just that by reminding its audience that each person can make a difference by examining himself and his surroundings, while also providing a night of beautiful music and entertainment with a message that packed a punch.