Center for Community Engagement

The world premiere of a local story: Garden of Martyrs opens September 20

Garden of Martyrs Stage Performance
September 2013story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy of Julie Keresztes '12.

On Friday, September 20, Associate Professor of Music and composer Eric Sawyer will debut his second opera, The Garden of Martyrs, at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass. When the opera opens, it will be in the same city where, some two hundred years earlier, the events depicted in the opera actually happened. For Sawyer, the power of sharing this local story where it occurred has “continued to sink in.”

The Garden of Martyrs tells the story of Dominic Daley and James Halligan, two Irish Catholic immigrants who were tried and executed in Northampton in 1806 for a murder they almost certainly did not commit. Sawyer and librettist Harley Erdman adapted the opera from the eponymous novel by Michael C. White, who will be present for the opera’s debut.

The Garden of Martyrs features an impressive cast and crew, many from the local community. The program includes Maestro Kevin Rhodes, leading the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, voice faculty from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst choral director Mallory Chernin and a chorus largely comprised of Amherst and other Five College students.

Sawyer and Erdman have made a concerted effort to share their work in the local community. In a series partially supported by the Center for Community Engagement’s Engaged Scholarship Initiative, the pair staged the opera, act by act, in a set of community workshops and solicited feedback along the way. Most recently, they worked with the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History to host The Irish Legacy: Immigration and Assimilation in the Connecticut Valley during the Industrial Revolution, an exhibit that featured the music, artifacts, and clothing of the area’s Irish immigrants. Bringing the community into the process, creatively and otherwise, has made sense for a story that’s been kept alive “largely by the local Irish community,” Sawyer says.

Sawyer has a proclivity for bringing history to the stage: in 2009, he debuted his first opera, Our American Cousin, which depicted the events of the Ford Theater on the evening of Lincoln’s assassination. Yet sharing the landscape of Daley and Halligan’s world has had a specific pull for Sawyer. “To be able to go to where the jail was, where the murder took place, where the hangings took place—this story happened right here,” he says. “This is really part of where we came from.”

While there are period elements in the opera, Sawyer says that he and the production team are creating a world without much specificity in costume or the set. “The overall decisions about the scenery and costumes and lighting are towards abstraction,” he explains, adding that the minimalist design is suggestive of the timeless questions the opera raises. “I think it will be very effective that way in making it a story that’s not applicable just the one time.”

Sawyer was, in fact, drawn to The Garden of Martyrs because of this continued resonance. “In a way, the issues haven’t changed,” Sawyer says. “There was a feeling of fear and hostility in Massachusetts at that time, and [it meant] that Daley and Halligan couldn’t receive a fair trial. It’s not very hard to see this opera and make the connection to [what] new immigrants face today. Their story continues to feel relevant.”

Catch the world premiere of The Garden of Martyrs on Friday, September 20 at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, September 22 at 3:00 p.m. For more information and to buy tickets online, visit the website.