June 3, 2008
Contact: Caroline Jenkins Hanna
Director of Media Relations


AMHERST, Mass.—Our American Cousin, an opera about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with music composed by Amherst College music professor Eric Sawyer, will premiere Friday, June 20, and Sunday, June 22, at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass. The opus tells the story of Lincoln’s killing from the point of view of audience members watching and actors staging the now-infamous comedy (a Broadway play also titled Our American Cousin) in progress at Ford’s Theater when the assassination occurred.

The opera is the collaborative invention of Sawyer and poet John Shoptaw, who wrote the libretto. Sawyer’s score will be performed by the renowned Boston Modern Orchestra Project with stage direction by Carole Charnow, general director of Opera Boston. Imagined within the framework of the actual historical event and the adapted plot of the original Broadway comedy, the opera is made up of three acts: the backstage events prior to the Our American Cousin play, the play itself and the rupture of the stage drama by the assassination and its immediate aftermath.

“We wanted to look at this well-documented historical event through a modern prism,” explained Sawyer. “The opera’s audience will obviously know what’s happening throughout and is aware of where the plot is headed, but we hope the music and the libretto will help them forget the history and lose themselves in the story.”

The juxtaposition of the comedy of the play with the tragedy of the assassination calls for a wide range of musical character, and Sawyer’s work draws upon traditions of both an opera of discrete musical numbers and a continuous music-drama. Its arias range from a tall tale of possum herding in the Our American Cousin play to Mary Lincoln’s post-assassination outburst, while choral material touches on everything from the bitter humor of wounded veterans to a freed slaves’ song of liberation. In another piece, Lincoln even muses about his own constitution and that of his country.

Sawyer and Shoptaw began Our American Cousin in the early 1990s and have been able to refine the music and the libretto several times since in workshops. The creative team is making plans to stage the opera in a metropolitan venue during 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birthday.

Performances will take place at the Academy of Music at 7:30 p.m. on June 20 and 3 p.m. on June 22; tickets range from $15 to $50 with discounts for students and senior citizens. Seats can be purchased by calling 1-800-595-4TIX or at ouramericancousin.tix.com. The box office opens one hour before performances.

Listen to a recording of the aria of the Amputees.
audioListen to a recording of the aria of the Freedmen.