This spring, University Opera follows up its groundbreaking video production on the life and times of composer Marc Blitzstein with another video. What’s Past is Prologue: The Unfinished American Conversation, a program of staged and filmed songs and song cycles with social and racial justice themes, will be released on the Mead Witter School of Music YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/7Up_OXD6K2U on April 10 at 7:30 pm, with an encore stream on April 11 at 2 pm. David Ronis, Director of University Opera, is directing, and Thomas Kasdorf is the musical director.

Today, many Americans feel we are at a crossroads. We are suffering from the isolation, grief, and financial hardship that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about and are wary of escalating antagonism among us exacerbated by the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath. Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights continue to be debated and threatened. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has cast into stark relief our country’s checkered record on racism, law enforcement, and civil rights.

What’s Past is Prologue: The Unfinished American Conversation addresses these concerns through a series of songs and song cycles focused on events in American history, seen through the lens of today’s socio-political climate. The title, taken from the famous quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, asks us to examine our history–where we have been, where we are now– and to consider where we might be headed.

The program features works by living composers with texts written by, or about, six eminent Americans who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Steven Mark Kohn’s The Trial of Susan B. Anthony recounts how the legendary suffragist, defying state and federal laws, voted in the 1872 election and was subsequently brought to trial. Songs by Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Berg, Michael Daugherty, John Kander, and Ned Rorem on texts by Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln bring us to the era of the Civil War.

They ask us to examine our fraught history and suggest parallels in our current time. Mr. Kohn’s The War Prayer is a setting of a posthumously published poem by Mark Twain that is, at once, an anti-war piece as well as one that questions faith in God. Tom Cipullo’s Frederick Douglass pays tribute to the great American abolitionist and social reformer, famous for his advocacy for all people, but especially for African-Americans. And finally, settings of five Langston Hughes poems by Gwyneth Walker, Margaret Bonds, and Madison’s own Scott Gendel, depict the African-American experience in the 1930s but also have tremendous resonance in today’s troubled times.

The show features UW-Madison graduate students Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Amanda Lauricella, Lindsey Meekhof, Kyle Sackett, Molly Schumacher, DaSean Stokes, Sachie Ueshima, and Julia Urbank as well as undergrads Maria Steigerwald and Princess Vaulx. The two pianists for the production are UW-Madison opera coach Thomas Kasdorf and graduate student William Preston. Rounding out the cast are three guest artists: doctoral students Quanda Johnson and James Harrington, and Professor Paul Rowe. The video design is by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park. Others on the production staff include Rachel Love, research assistant; Grace Greene, production stage manager; Cecilia League, assistant stage manager; Molly Schumacher, operations manager; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video premieres on April 10 at 7:30 pm with a repeat showing on April 11 at 2 pm. It will remain accessible for 23 hours after each stream. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted.

In addition to the show, University Opera will post two extra features, both panel discussions. The first–a discussion of  legacy of the patriarchy and other hierarchical structures in the arts, and how that paradigm is shifting–features Amy Gilman, Director of the Chazen Museum of Art; Susan C. Cook, Director of the Mead Witter School of Music; and Quanda Johnson, guest artist in the production and Ph.D. candidate in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies. The second brings together the students who perform in The Trial of Susan B. Anthony to discuss the piece, Ms. Anthony, her controversial stance on race, and cancel culture.

University Opera is a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music whose mission is to provide comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for our students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, please contact opera@music.wisc.edu.