About Don Henry

Introduction

Don Henry is a chamber opera that tells the true story of an American student who fought in the Spanish Civil War to defeat Francisco Franco’s fascist forces in the 1930s. The workexamines the eponymous protagonist’s commitment to the cause of equity and freedom for which he gave his life. Don Henry represents a stylistic synthesis of rock music and art music.

Don Henry is a sixty-minute one-act work. The work is scored for mezzo-soprano, tenor, pre-recorded soprano and male narrator, Pierrot ensemble, and rock trio (drum set, bass guitar, and electric guitar). This piece tells Don’s story through historical documents and lyrical commentary. The primary source of text for the libretto is poetry written by those who witnessed the Spanish Civil War and contemporaneous historical documents, yet the nature of the fixed media and musical styles suggest a twenty-first century backdrop.

The impetus for creating a piece that examines the cause of anti-fascism is the increasing visibility and normalization of white-nationalism in the USA. In 2018, neo-Nazis and American white-nationalists ran for political office more than any other time in the history of the USA.[1] According to Paul Robeson, an African-American opera singer and activist whose career spanned from the 1920s-1960s, artists must take sides:

Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where [they stand]. [They] have no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers…through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.[2]

His words call on all artists to use their place in the public sphere responsibly. Don Henry is a response to Robeson’s decree.

The Don Henry Story

Don Henry was a University of Kansas (KU) student whose ideals led him to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He became a member of the international brigade that fortified the leftist Spanish Republicans (also referred to as the Loyalists). Don was a young man when Mussolini and Hitler established fascist governments in Western Europe. He and others from around the world traveled to Spain to help prevent a fascist government from taking hold as it had in Italy and Germany.

It did not take long for Don Henry to see the front line of the war after his arrival to Spain in the summer of 1937. Sadly, he died during his first battle. After his death, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was provided evidence from the KU Board of Regents based on the latter’s investigation at KU and in Don’s hometown of Dodge City, KS. The investigation uncovered that Don had become a member of communist organizations at the University, and that his ideological leanings contributed to his decision to give his life fighting fascists.

Don Henry Chamber Opera Synopsis

Don Henry’s story starts with his departure for Europe and ends shortly after the revelation of his death. The opera opens with Duke Prospero, a fictional representative from the HUAC, reading from the document which presents the result of the committee’s investigation into Don’s activities prior to joining the international brigade. Don’s mother receives a letter from him, which she begins to read aloud. The letter reveals that Don had lied to his parents about the true nature of his trip to Europe. The setting shifts from on-stage activity to a television broadcast from a twenty-four-hour news channel reporting on the conflict in Spain. Next, a new character, Salaria Kee, is introduced. Salaria proceeds to sing an aria detailing her own journey to Spain for the same reason as Don. The twenty-four-hour news broadcast becomes increasingly dark and absurd while the seriousness of the Spanish conflict becomes clearer. The climactic musical number, Enough is Enough, elaborates on Salaria and Don’s commitment to fighting fascism and alludes to an impending battle. Duke then coldly reveals Don’s death during his first day on the front line. In the final scene, Don’s mother reads the final two pages of his letter. She is unaware of his death while she reads Don’s request for care packages from his family. 

Survey of Related Research

My research focused on multiple extant dramatic vocal works that fall into two categories: 1) Landmark works that have become part of the standard repertory for ensembles, opera companies, and musical theatre companies and 2) works that are explicitly political and resemble my style. My research of landmark works began in the Spring of 2018 when I took a course on the history of opera with Dr. Martin Nedbal. The class investigated the most important operas from Claudio Monteverdi’s l’Orfeo (1607) to John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (2005). This survey revealed the multi-century trajectory of the operatic tradition that I am now participating in. There are three recent works that are especially applicable to my research: Doctor Atomic by John Adams, Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe, and Solider Songs by David T. Little.

The libretto for Doctor Atomic provided me with a model for telling the Don Henry story. Like Doctor Atomic, Don Henry is based on true events for which there is a multitude of historical documents. Peter Sellars’ libretto for Doctor Atomic is made up of historical documents related to the development and testing of nuclear weapons as well as extant poetry used for arias and emotive commentary on the events the opera is based on. For example, the aria “Batter My Heart” is a setting of a sonnet by John Donne. Adams’ tonal minimalist style is one I have long looked to for inspiration.

Although Anthracite Fields is an oratorio, many of its elements are pertinent to the development of my opera. Wolfe assembled the text for Anthracite herself, as I am doing for Don Henry. Her intention was to compose a work that would honor the harshly exploited anthracite coal-miners from her home state of Pennsylvania. To that end, she did extensive research by investigating local museums and interviewing former coal workers and their families. Her research inspired me to seek out the people who witnessed or fought in the Spanish Civil War. Through my research, I discovered an anthology of poetry entitled Poems from Spain[3]. All poems in this book were written by international brigaders from the British Isles. Like Wolfe, I hope to make my political statement more striking by invoking the emotions of those who experienced the story I am attempting to elevate. There are only a handful of composers whose music has influenced mine as much as Julia Wolfe. Throughout her career she has synthesized elements of rock music and art music in a way that has garnered respect from her colleagues and recognition from the public as evidenced by her winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music for Anthracite Fields and her appearance on the beloved children’s television program, Arthur.

Of all the works I am researching, David T. Little’s chamber opera Soldier Songs resembles my vision for Don Henry the most. Little’s multi-media opera tackles a broad political topic with original lyrics by the composer and with a style influenced as much by art music as it is by rock music. According to the opera’s program note, Soldier Songs is “an evening-length multimedia event…Combining elements of theater, opera, rock-infused concert music, and animation to explore the perceptions versus the realities of a soldier, the exploration of loss and exploitation of innocence, and the difficulty of expressing the truth of war.” [4] The composer, like Julia Wolfe, constructed his own libretto. The fulcrum of the libretto are interviews Little conducted with U.S. military veterans. The interviews are used in two ways: first, audio from the interview is played during the opera, and second, the lyrics Little wrote are reflections on what he learned from the veterans. Similarly, my original lyrics are inspired and informed by the poems by and historical documents about the people I am depicting and whose concerns I am voicing in my opera. Little’s use of audio and video to immerse the audience and contemporize the issues he is presenting is effective and will guide my own work on Don Henry.

Procedures and Methodologies

Libretto

The narrative is created using two historical documents. The historical documents are the KU Board of Regents press release and a letter that Don wrote to his father after his arrival in Spain. The music acts as a sort of emotive commentary on what is being revealed through the historical documents. The text that is drawn directly from the historical documents is often altered for clarity, conciseness, and dramatic effect. Don’s letter from Spain and the Press Release of the Board of Regents can be found on pages 437 and 453 respectively.

The following items have either informed the text or are direct sources of lyrics:

  1. a letter Don Henry wrote to his father revealing the location and purpose of his European trip,[5]
  2. the KU Board of Regents report,
  3. Poems from Spain.
  4. a contemporaneous newspaper clipping found in Don Henry’s possession after his death,
  5. Shakespeare, Sonnet 94,
  6. lyric-poetry written by the composer,
  7. Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton.[6]

Staging

The audience will experience the work in two settings: on stage and through a pre-recorded video playing on an on-stage screen. Below is a description of what each setting will include.

  1. On-stage
    1. Two singers, a tenor and a mezzo-soprano
      1. Don Henry will be played by a tenor
      1. Ms. Henry and Salaria Kee will be played by the same soprano
  2. Video setting (pre-recorded):
    1. Megan O’Reilly (soprano)
      1. provide commentary on the on-stage events
      1. propel narrative through satirizing a 24-hours news network personality
      1. accompany on-stage singers
    1. Duke Prospero (male narrator)
      1. declamation of text from KU Board of Regents report

[1] Juliana Kaplan and Alyssa Fisher, “Record Breaking Number of neo-Nazis and White Nationalists Running for Office in the U.S.,” haaretz.com, last modified July 15, 2018, accessed October 11, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/record-breaking-number-of-white-nationalists-run-for-office-in-u-s-1.6272263.

See also,

Southern Poverty Law Center, “WHITE NATIONALIST,” splcenter.org, accessed October 11, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/white-nationalist.

[2] Philip S. Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks (New York: Citadel Press, 1978), 118.

[3] Jim Jump, ed., Poems from Spain: British and Irish International Brigaders on the Spanish Civil War (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006)

[4] David T. Little, “Soldier Songs,” davidtlittle.com, accessed October 11, 2018, https://davidtlittle.com/works/soldier-songs/.

[5] Items 1, 2, and 4 can be accessed via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration website: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/don-henry, accessed November 8, 2018

[6] Huey P. Newton, Dr., Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 3. In this auto-biography, Newton unpacks the concept of Revolutionary Suicide. This concept relates directly to Don Henry’s willingness to travel over four thousand miles to Spain and put his life on the line. “Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death…”