June 15, 2011

By Rebecca Ojserkis ’12

“Magic!” one audience member exclaimed after the second act of The Garden of Martyrs. Such a response was a characteristic review of the June 12 performance, a workshop of a new opera composed by Eric Sawyer, associate professor of music. (The same act will also be performed on Friday, June 17, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Robyn Newhouse Hall in the Community Music School of Springfield, 127 State Street, Springfield.)


The opera, based on Michael C. White’s novel by the same name and partly funded by the college’s Center for Community Engagement, developed from a collaboration between composer Sawyer and librettist Harley Erdman. The story examines the 1806 case of two Irish Catholic immigrants who were executed in Northampton, Mass., for a murder they likely didn’t commit. The plot appealed to Sawyer in part because of its theatrical tendencies—its simplicity and drama “seemed operatic,” he says. He also found the 200-year-old story surprisingly relevant: it tackles issues surrounding immigration and “what it means to be different in America,” Sawyer says. For Sawyer, it is a subject that “renews itself in each generation in some way.”

The opera incorporates historical language and music. In Act II, for example, performers use the Old English pronouns “ye” and “yer” and refer to an outhouse as “the jakes.” Sawyer described his style as modern by definition but influenced by the classical tradition. The opera incorporates immigrant music such as the Irish tunes (included on June 12) and Sacred Harp music. The latter, a “homegrown American style,” was developing in 1806, affording Sawyer leeway to stay true to the style’s roots while giving “room to invent what might have been said or heard,” he says. Such flexibility typifies The Garden of Martyrs, which, though based on an actual case, takes artistic liberties in character development and musical style. As Sawyer puts it, “Opera isn’t famous for its great truth value.”

Its entertainment value is another story. Sawyer plans to produce the full opera with local performers and have it performed for local viewers. Those who saw Act II on June 12 feel likewise. One audience member predicted sellout crowds every night. Another described the frenzied singing of the chorus in one captivating, rhythmic moment as “extraordinary.” The first act of the opera was performed this past January, and, in order to obtain more public feedback, Sawyer plans to stage the third act as a workshop within the next year. The full opera is expected to premiere in 2013. For more information and for video clips of the work, go to http://thegardenofmartyrsopera.com.