A series of thoughts on Lansing McLoskey's Zealot Canticles (premiere March 19, Philadelphia)
When Samuel Barber decided to compose a work based on Pablo Neruda's already well-known Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, he knew he could not set all of poems in a work of just 40 minutes. Barber therefore set out to fashion a new libretto from the source material. Alone, living as an expatriate in the Dolomites, and sinking into an alcoholic, depressed exile, he reworked Neruda's book into a narrative that begins with desire, plunges deeply into an obsessive relationship which then disintegrates, and concludes with devastating resignation: ''forsaken, forsaken, forsaken.'' He made Neruda's poems autobiographical and the result is a work of astonishingly raw beauty.
I am always fascinated by the choices composers make when arranging pre-existing poems and writings into a libretto - a narrative that makes sense to them and offers what they want to say. Lew Spratlan and I had a ball doing that with his Hesperus and Phosphorus, pairing Richard Feynman with Wallace Shawn and A.R. Ammons with Adrienne Rich. I can't imagine how much reading Kevin Puts did to choose the nine women, covering 2500 years of history, whose letters and poems serve as the libretto for To Touch the Sky.
While Barber took on highly substantive poetry - and thus faced the challenge of what to bring to those already refined words, Puts' choices often offer philosophical ideas with little poetic grace, leaving more room for the composer to enhance. Lew's piece requires a composing mind that will bring order and balance to both great poetry and quirky prose - like that of David Eagleman - a call he jumps into with humor and energy.
As he assembled the libretto for Zealot Canticles, the task before Lansing was enormous. We asked him to focus on the writing of Wole Soyinka, of which there are volumes of great variety. His many plays in English are undoubtedly what led to his Nobel, but it is the very personal poems, canticles, lectures, and essays addressing oppression, political imprisonment, and the effect of zealotry on the individual and the community that is our focus. And, for Wole, this lifelong discussion of radicalism is always infused with a commentary on religion; he respects and loves the ritual and beauty of religion and condemns its use for anything but lifting up the less fortunate.
...who kills for love of
god kills love, kills god,
Who kills in the name of
god leaves god
without a name...
Lying at the root of Wole's art and philosophy is Power - how Power is used and abused. This is no more clearly stated than in the brief text Lansing chose from an essay on Power and Freedom. In Lansing's hands, it becomes a mesmerizing and ultimately chilling baritone aria:
I am right, you are wrong.
I am right, you are dead.
This serves as the tenth movement of his hour-long cantata that captures Wole's (and, clearly, Lansing's) anger, fear, and, yes, love. The inspiration for all of this writing - of Wole and Lansing and of the request for this collaboration from The Crossing and me - is love. It is the 'what if' of love. The Power of what could be if we treated each other differently. And, as we all know all too well recently, that 'what if' can in turn produce anger, confusion, fear, and tears.
That tenth movement is balanced in Movement 4 with a statement Wole made introducing his acceptance lecture upon receiving the Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership in 2013. It is a fascinating and challenging starting point for a libretto, inviting thought, meditation, action, and, in Lansing's dramatic and beautiful new work, art.
When you live in an environment of the progressive insemination of fear as an agency of faith, it is no time for palliatives of speech and timorous euphemisms. As the poet Langston Hughes, a product of generations of intolerance, observes in one of his poems:
''There is no lavender word for 'lynch.'''
''Progressive insemination of fear as an agency of faith.'' May we all mark these words clearly and live to thwart them.