Submitted on Monday, 9/23/2013, at 10:31 AM

In Northampton, Mass., in 1806, two Irish immigrants, Dominic Daley and James Halligan, were hanged in front of 15,000 cheering spectators for a murder they did not commit. This September, Northampton’s Academy of Music staged world-premiere performances of The Garden of Martyrs, a new opera that dramatized this miscarriage of justice. The opera featured music by Amherst College’s Associate Professor Eric Sawyer and libretto by UMass Professor Harley Erdman.

Chernin conducts a group of singers onstage Mallorie Chernin, director of Amherst's Choral Music Program, conducts during a rehearsal of The Garden of Martyrs in Buckley Recital Hall.

Sawyer was inspired to create The Garden of Martyrs upon reading Michael C. White’s 2004 historical novel by the same title. White wrote the novel while living in Wilbraham, Mass., where the (still unsolved) 1806 murder had taken place. “I thought it was wonderful to have a story that grows out of our own backyard but has wider currency,” said Sawyer, referring to the modern resonance of the story’s theme of “immigration to America and the difficulty and suspicion with which newcomers are greeted, with not only the judicial system but other aspects of navigating American society.”

The opera showed the last three days of the Daley/Halligan case through the eyes of Father Jean Cheverus, a prominent priest based in Boston whose own haunted past—as a refugee from the French Revolution—led him to aid the accused. After the execution, Cheverus became, according to Sawyer, the first Catholic priest ever to deliver an official oration in predominantly-Protestant Northampton; his speech marked a “first step toward a kind of acceptance of something new in Massachusetts” and was a key scene in the opera. 

Though the opera was based mainly on the novel, Sawyer and Erdman’s supplementary research involved visiting the murder site along the Chicopee River and reading a manuscript about the legal aspects of the case written by former Northampton District Court Judge W. Michael Ryan. Northampton observed the bicentennial of the execution in 2006; area residents and websites hold a trove of information about it, Sawyer said. Media sponsors of The Garden of Martyrs included the Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Valley Advocate, WGBY and New England Public Radio. Sawyer’s work on it was funded in part by a grant from Amherst College’s Faculty Research Award Program, and Amherst’s Buckley Recital Hall was the venue for several workshop performances of the opera over the past year and for more recent rehearsals in preparation for the staging at the Academy of Music.

“The local story and the local institutions that have helped foster it happening here, and the fact that it’s really growing very organically out of a place, mean a lot to me,” Sawyer remarked before the performances. “Out of this locality, we’ve managed to put together a production that I think is worthy of any good, strong professional opera company.”

Indeed, the opera’s creators, cast and crew included local residents and internationally known professionals. The production featured choreography by Professor Wendy Woodson, as well as Amherst and Five College students, alumni and faculty singing in a chorus led by Mallorie Chernin. The conductor was Kevin Rhodes, whose work extends from the Springfield Symphony Orchestra to the Vienna State Opera and other major European houses. Stage director Vernon Hartman, tenor William Hite, soprano Amy Johnson and baritone Keith Phares represented a wealth of operatic experience and acclaim.

Chernin and Sawyer sit in Buckley seats, reviewing notes Chernin and Sawyer, during a rehearsal in Buckley

Erdman and Sawyer are both known for works that reinterpret U.S. history through a modern lens. Sawyer’s first opera, Our American Cousin, premiered at Amherst in 2007 and examined the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from the perspectives of the president himself and of the actors performing that fateful night in Ford’s Theatre.

Asked to compare and contrast his first and second operas, Sawyer said, “One likes to think that one learns something from an experience done the first time, and one sign of this is that this [new] opera, which took three years from start to performance, feels as if it’s come much more quickly and easily than Our American Cousin, which was 10 years plus.” The Garden of Martyrs, he noted, had a simpler narrative time line and more dramatic tension.

“As an English-language opera, [with] a story that I think will be very immediate to people seeing it, I think it’s a good entry point for seeing a first opera,” he said—but he believed that the strong cast and excellent production values would attract and satisfy the Valley’s more seasoned opera fans, too.

Photos by Ilana Panich-Linsman