A horrifying incident in LGBT history is the subject of a new opera by Fort Lauderdale composer Michael Ross.
“Not In My Town,” a dramatization of the events surrounding the tragic 1998 murder of college student Matthew Shepard will receive its gala preview by Opera Fusion on Friday, June 17 at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.
Ross originally conceived the opera as a commission for an LGBT-themed work from one of his alma maters. Ross was then living and working in New York City when word quickly spread through the gay community about the horrific beating and murder of the 21-year-old in a Wyoming field.
“Everybody congregated for a candlelight vigil and then marched through the streets,” recalled Ross. “I asked myself if I could write a whole opera about that.”
While Ross chose to include the events of that October night, he made the decision to make Shepard’s close friend and ally, Romaine Patterson, the heroine of the opera.
Patterson’s name is familiar to Sirius XM Out Q listeners as the host of the former “Derek and Romaine” talk show, but most people are not aware of her role in the events that unfolded after Shepard’s murder.
Patterson and Shepard first became friends when Patterson, who is a lesbian and was leader of gay student group, defended him against a bully. When Rev. Fred Phelps and his supporters from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka protested the trials of Shepard’s murderers, Patterson created giant seven-foot-long angel wings to shield his parents from seeing the group’s hateful signs.
Her counterprotest became known as Angel Action and she would become an LGBT activist, speaking to civil rights groups and lobbying for the passage of a national hate crimes bill.
Noting that the murder occurs mid-way through the opera (but is not dramatized at her request), much of the narrative focuses on Patterson and her efforts to cement Shepard’s legacy.
Patterson is expected to attend the June preview and the world premiere, scheduled for September at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, during the school’s International Peace Week observations.
“Not In My Town” will be premiered by Opera Fusion, an innovative new performing arts company, featuring seven principals, a double chorus and 18-piece orchestra under the direction of Gordon Roberts.
The musical drama seemed like the “perfect fit” for Opera Fusion, “considering the national debate that has raged in the last 20 years, as well as the size of the work,” Opera Fusion executive director Birgit Fioravante said. “From my point of view, this work has everything a new ‘opera’ should have — great music, great drama, a riveting story. The tonal palate is somewhere between grand opera and musical theater, giving it a wider appeal than most new works. It has the potential to move people much in the same way ‘West Side Story’ first did in its day.”
The opera has already been previewed by audiences at a series of fundraisers and during the spring concert of the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida.
Noting the tremendous advances the LGBT community has made in recent years, Ross sees his opera as a period piece rooted in the era of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.
“It’s such a special story and by the end it reveals a beautiful message,” explained Ross. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. It is a gay opera but could be about any person who is persecuted or bullied.”
Opera Fusion performs “Not In My Town” by Michael Ross on Friday, June 17 at 8 p.m. at Sunshine Cathedral, 1480 SW 9th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $38 and $100 (including dinner and post-performance reception) at OperaFusion.org.