The tragic 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard has inspired a play and film adaptation, “The Laramie Project,” numerous literary works and, most importantly, a hate crimes bill passed by Congress a decade later. Shepard’s story is now being told on the opera stage.
Last weekend, “Not In My Town” by gay Fort Lauderdale composer and lyricist Michael W. Ross received its world premiere performance by Opera Fusion at the Florida Atlantic University Theatre in Boca Raton.
The one-act work, presented in 13 scenes, begins on the campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie where Shepard (Ryan Townsend), a transfer student, is being bullied. Lesbian Romaine Patterson (Robyn Marie Lamp) comes to his aid and the two develop a deep friendship.
Subsequent scenes explore the deliberations of Shepard’s parents (Sarah-Helen Land and Ardean Landhuis) over his homosexuality and the evening Shephard met two men at a local bar only to be taken to a field, assaulted and left for dead tied to a fencepost.
The remainder of the opera portrays Romaine’s anguish, a candlelight vigil, protests led by homophobic Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps (Enrique Estrada), statements by Shepard’s parents at the sentencing of the attackers and Patterson’s landmark speech at a meeting of the Anti-Defamation League.
While the opera ostensibly tells the story of Shepard’s life and death, the real heroine is Patterson, whose idea to construct angel costumes for counter-protesters at Shephard’s funeral would catapult her into the national spotlight as an activist. More recently, she was cohost of a popular Sirius XM Out-Q radio program.
Patterson was in the audience at FAU for the premiere performance, taking the stage to welcome the audience and express her nervousness at seeing her story portrayed on stage for the first time.
By most standards, the premiere was a huge success, a moving tribute to Shepard’s sacrifice and legacy. Billed as a musical drama, “Not In My Town” definitely falls within the operatic genre. Ross’s score is lush, suggesting the film scores of Hans Zimmer or the contemporary romantic symphonies of Howard Hanson, performed beautifully by an 18-piece orchestra under the baton of Gordon Roberts. The vocal lines are less lyric and often serve primarily to advance the detailed exposition of the historical events.
Most musical highlights occur after Shepard’s murder, when Ross finally seems freed from the story and can finally explore the underlying emotions and motivations of his characters: “When did the World Stop Caring” sung powerfully by Lamp and “Olivia’s Proposal,” beautifully performed by Lamp and Cory Shelley as Patterson’s girlfriend, Olivia. The most poignant musical moment is the “Candlelight Vigil,” a beautiful choral work unencumbered by lyrics and again accompanied by a rich orchestration.
Landhuis (Dennis Shepard) performs triple duty as director and production designer. His staging is tight, especially given the large ensemble. A large stone arch effectively floats across the stage to set the different scenes on the university campus, frame the Shepards’ home and serve as the entrance to the church.
The production moves to the Broward Center this weekend and should not be missed.
OperaFusion presents “Not In My Town” by Michael Ross at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, Sept. 30 – Oct. 1. Tickets are available at BrowardCenter.org.