Music Chandler Carter

Libretto Joan Ross Sorkin

 

STRANGE FRUIT

synopsis

 

 

Strange Fruit is a new American opera, adapted from Lillian Smith’s best-selling novel whose title was taken from the famous Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit.” Smith’s book tells the tragic story of a secret interracial love affair in Georgia, circa 1920, and was immediately controversial when published in 1944 and banned by booksellers in various locales around the country. Like the book, the opera is a powerful tale of race, passion, betrayal, murder and revenge, but above all, depicts human frailty that afflicts both sides of the racial divide. The story is set against a backdrop of swiftly changing social and economic times where Negroes, fresh from the battlefields of World War I, were leaving the cotton fields of the Old South, some heading north, others displacing white unskilled workers in the factories and mills at home. Whites, in turn, fearing the winds of change, took refuge in their past, in their prejudice and in their God, further fanning the flames of racism and turning small backwater towns like Maxwell, Ga., the fictitious town in Strange Fruit, into potential powder kegs. The opera’s score, taking its musical vocabulary from the same period, is infused with blues, jazz and gospel, building on the traditions of popular American music.

 

Strange Fruit revolves around our heroine, Nonnie Anderson, age 21, an idealistic black girl who is deeply in love with Tracy Deen, age 24, a gentle, though disaffected white boy, adrift in his own life. They both live with their families in Maxwell with its invisible boundary between White Town and Colored Town. The story begins when Ed, Nonnie’s older brother returns to Maxwell for a visit from Washington, D.C. to persuade his sister to return north with him to escape the hopelessness and bigotry of their hometown. Nonnie resists, knowing that leaving home means losing her beloved Tracy, the father of her unborn child. At the same time as Ed’s arrival, a white revival meeting has come to town, and Tracy’s mother, Alma, suspicious of Tracy’s behavior, enlists the traveling minister to cajole Tracy to join the church and marry his high school sweetheart Dorothy. The vulnerable Tracy, frightened by the prospect of fathering Nonnie’s child and worn down by his domineering mother, becomes susceptible to the minister’s entreaties and concocts an unholy scheme to save Nonnie the shame of bearing the child out of wedlock. When Tracy comes to Nonnie to explain his plan and end their affair, she refuses to accept his betrayal and professes her love for him. Meanwhile, Ed has discovered that Nonnie is carrying Tracy’s child, and as Tracy tears himself from Nonnie, Ed murders him in a fit of rage.

 

In a moment of weakness and dizzy with grief, Nonnie aids her sister Bess and family friend, Dr. Sam Perry, the most well-respected Negro in town, in their plan to help Ed escape north. However, Nonnie is plagued by her duplicity when she learns that a white mob, eager to avenge Tracy’s death, is scouring the town for Big Henry, the Deen’s loyal houseboy and Tracy’s childhood companion. In the eleventh hour, Nonnie tries to come to Henry’s rescue, but her efforts are too late, and the innocent Henry is savagely lynched and burned in a sickening public display that shamefully resembles the atmosphere of a small-town carnival.

 

After the lynching, Maxwell puts its blinders back on and returns to its routines without any attempt to examine its own inhumanity. Yet Nonnie gives birth to her baby and parades him stoically around Maxwell in a show of human dignity and racial harmony that she hopes will someday come.

 

Cast of 14, plus ensemble of 8 (minimum)

musical Excerpts

 

 

Lullaby and sextet, Act 1, scene 1

All eyes focus on Nonnie as she strolls down College Street with the baby in her care.

Nonnie’s Song, Act 1, scene 3

Late at night Nonnie secretly waits by the river for Tracy.

 

 

Tracy’s Ballad, Act 1, scene 3

Tracy recalls how he remembered Nonnie when

he was serving in France during World War I.

 

Adina Aaron, Nonnie

Joseph Kaiser, Tracy

New York City Opera, Stephen Gross, conductor

 

Nonnie’s Aria, Act 1, scene 7

Even though her family condemns her affair and pregnancy, Nonnie is determined to keep both her lover and unborn child.

 

Erina Newkirk, Nonnie

Long Leaf Opera, Benjamin Keaton, conductor

VIDEO

 

 

Final Dress Rehearsal

Final Company Rehearsal

Orchestra Rehearsal

Chorus Rehearsal

Dramatis personae

 

Nonnie Anderson, 21-year old Negro girl..........................................................

Bess Anderson, Nonnie’s older sister.......................................................

Ed Anderson, Nonnie’s older brother....................................................................

Tracy Deen, 24-year old white boy............................................................

Alma Deen, Tracy’s mother....................................................................................

Dorothy, Tracy’s neighbor and high school girlfriend........................................

Sam Perry, the town’s Negro doctor..................................................................

Big Henry, Deen’s 24-year old Negro houseboy........................................................

Dessie, young Negro maid.................................................................................

Brother Dunwoodie, white minister for a traveling church revival.........................

Tom Harris, white mill owner...............................................................................

Clay, white mill worker.............................................................................

R.T., another white mill worker............................................................................

Crazy Carl, white mentally-handicapped boy............................................

White Choir/Townsfolk.......................................................................................

 

(Note: Brother Dunwoodie and Tom Harris may be doubled.)

 

 

 

orchestration (25 Forces)

Orchestrated for small chamber orchestra:

 

Soprano

Mezzo-Soprano

Tenor

High Baritone

Alto

Soprano

Baritone

Bass

Soprano

Tenor

Tenor

Bass-Baritone

Tenor

Speaking Role

SATB

 

  • Flute (doubling piccolo)
  • Oboe
  • 3 Clarinets (3rd doubling alto saxophone)
  • Bass clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • 2 Horns
  • Trumpet
  • Trombone (doubles tenor and bass)
  • Steel-string guitar (amplified)
  • Accordion
  • Percussion*
  • 2 Pianos (one in pit, one off-stage)
  • 1st and 2nd Violins (min. 3 each; one soloist plays in Appalachian fiddle-style)
  • Violas (minimum two)
  • Violoncellos (minimum two)
  • Double bass

 

(*Percussion includes: drum set, timpani, suspended cymbal, wood block, tambourine)

Press Quotes

World Premiere, Long Leaf Opera, Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, NC

June 15 & 17, 2007

 

 

 “Long Leaf Opera has joined forces with UNC to create this equally historic first,

a Festival that is dedicated to opera in, not just English, but mostly American language and idiom.

As the first show for the Festival, “Strange Fruit” is well up to the task of presenting a stunner of an opening performance, giving us a basic struggle that is uniquely American, and yet delivering on everything that we expect of modern opera: stirring voices, fine characters, a terrific and adaptive set, and a full stage of voices with singers who are among the top voices in their craft... This opera is truly American, having as its root the jazz/blues style of music. Often a deep, pulsing bass is heard, a soaring clarinet or flute, a country fiddle.

These characters create a mounting tension that culminates in chaos as the white townfolk gather for a lynching, and it is almost a carnival atmosphere. Afterward, those of Bess’s family, who have come too late to save him, join in a solemn prayer in which they ask forgiveness of their friend, Henry,

in a gospel-based quintet that is sad beyond endurance.”

Alan Hall, “Front Row Center,” Theatre in the Triangle, Vol. 13, No. 10, June 20, 2007

 

“Masterful work…so beautifully sung...[it] brought tears to my eyes…

The score is a skilled potpourri of mountain folk music, gospel hymns, jazz, blues and

contemporary classical composition. Especially impressive was Carter’s ensemble writing.

In some scenes, several characters are singing their inner thoughts, each in their own idiom, yet all blending together in interwoven counterpoint with stunning effect, a technique Carter must have learned from Mozart…At the wake for Tracy, Tom sings a striking setting of the 23rd Psalm with the women singing responsorially. It was part folk, part chant, and part gospel with some amazing embellishments woven in…

In one of those remarkable ensemble scenes Nonnie prays for forgiveness for not stopping

the lynching while the other four pray their own prayers.”

 Ken Hoover, Classical Voice of North Carolina, June 19, 2007

 

“Carter. . . seems to have an inborn feeling for the Southern setting, confidently employing

elements of jazz, blues and gospel hymns. These familiar idioms make the vocal lines sound natural

and supply a satisfying unity. . .[T]here is no denying Carter and Sorkin's assured talent in a work

that will easily bear repeated exposure.”

Roy C. Dicks, The News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, June 18, 2007

 

“It takes a very long time for art to process history, and when an artwork comes along

that makes a righteous step down that path toward understanding, it is very exciting. Such a work

[Strange Fruit] was presented in UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall last weekend, as a kickoff for the new daring venture of Long Leaf Opera Company, which primarily presents American works, and only operas sung in English…Drawing on diverse American traditions (blues, gospel, jazz…), Carter has created lively music

that moves us easily from scene to scene along a trajectory of emotion.”

Kate Dobbs Ariail, The Independent Weekly, June 20, 2007

 

 

 Strange Fruit In Concert

presented by

The Harlem School of the Arts

 in association with

New York City Opera

February 27 & March 1, 2009

 

 

 New York Times

 

“Six years ago New York City Opera gave “Strange Fruit,” an opera in progress

by the composer Chandler Carter and the librettist Joan Ross Sorkin, a crucial boost

by performing scenes from it as part of Vox 2003: Showcasing American Composers…“Strange Fruit”

had a premiere production in 2007 at the Long Leaf Opera in Chapel Hill, N.C…But it is second and third productions that are essential if a new opera is to have a chance at a future. For now, at least, “Strange Fruit” has had another hearing, courtesy of the Harlem School of the Arts in association with New York City Opera. On Friday night, at the school’s inviting performance space on St. Nicholas Avenue, “Strange Fruit” was presented in concert with a gifted cast of young professional singers, conducted by Steven Gross…

 

Mr. Carter, a North Carolina native, fills his score with evocations of blues, hymns, gospel and jazz.

Much of the dialogue is set in lyrically inflected, slightly bluesy recitative, though the voices at times break into soaring flights…Ms. Sorkin’s libretto tells the story in abundant detail with subtly poetic, often rhymed lines…The cast members gave their all, especially the earthy soprano Janinah Burnett as Nonnie,

and the robust tenor Daniel Neer as Tracy. Other standouts were Tamara Haskin as Nonnie’s sister, Bess; Robert Arthur Hughes as Ed…and Djoré Nance as Big Henry…”

Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, March 3, 2009

Production History and Awards

(Chronological listing, most recent first)

 

 

  1. Hofstra University, “Up South, The Great Migration in Sound and Movement,” staged scene, 2014.
  2.  
  3. Bleecker Street Opera, New Opera Composers’ Forum, 40-min. concert presentation of the opera, February 2010.
  4.  
  5. Strange Fruit in Concert, full opera concert presentation by The Harlem School of the Arts in association with New York City Opera, February 27 and March 1, 2009.
  6.  
  7. World Premiere, Long Leaf Opera, Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, NC, June 2007
  8.  
  9. Golden Fleece, Composers’ Chamber Theatre, Literary Landmarks, NYC, three fully produced scenes, 2005.
  10.  
  11. Golden Fleece, Composers’ Chamber Theatre, NYC, scenes in concert, 2004 and 2005.
  12.  
  13. Hofstra University, Hofstra Opera Theatre, two fully staged scenes, 2004.
  14.  
  15. Finalist, O’Neill Music Theater Conference, 2004.
  16.  
  17. New York City Opera, VOX 2003: Showcasing American Composers (two scenes presented in concert with full orchestra).
  18.  
  19. Note: In 2013 the score, libretto, CD and all production materials for Strange Fruit were archived in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library).