By Alanna Love
With Portland Opera’s 22/23 mainstage season having just begun, I was delighted to explore Beatrice, their newly commissioned youth opera which has recently been on tour, with Alexis Hamilton, Portland Opera’s Manager of Education & Community Engagement. Alexis has been a part of Portland Opera in many ways since she moved to Portland in the early ‘90s. Be it singing in outreach programs, taking on the role of tour manager, or eventually becoming the Education Department, she has grown along with the organization and has been instrumental in helping it expand in relevance to its community over the years.
When I jumped on the Zoom call with Alexis I found a lovely woman whose hair and glasses made me think of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada transformed into a whimsical arts teacher that we would have loved to learn from and create beauty with. In the background a lush red scarf is tossed across a chair and a bulletin board is peppered with post-its, illustrated prints, and hints of new creativity in the process of becoming.
Alexis Hamilton, Portland Opera Manager of Education & Community Engagement
One of the key education outreach programs that she manages is Portland Opera To Go, affectionately known as POGO. Each year, the POGO company performs 50-minute versions of operas for students and travels throughout Oregon and southern Washington to spark the imaginations of students, educators, and teachers. One of their most recent projects has been the commissioning and subsequent touring of Beatrice, the inaugural opera in the “Our Oregon” project.
Hello Alexis, I am so delighted to talk to you about Beatrice and the “Our Oregon” project. They both look amazing! Can you give us the complete rundown?
Oh I’m so excited to talk to you about this too! To start with, as you may know, Portland Opera adopted a new strategic plan several years ago, and a couple of the things in that strategic plan really stood out to me and grabbed my imagination. Specifically putting the Portland, not to mention the Oregon, back into the Portland Opera, as well as creating new commissions.
New commissions are super expensive, really complicated, and we haven’t done anything like that for the main stage since the ‘80s.
But since POGO is a smaller fleet (both the stakes and the prices are lower), it is perfect to try out this commissioning with. POGO’s stable of shows was getting a little tired anyway, and we hadn’t had a new one in a while. And because of this goal of arts integration in the classroom and the emphasis of the curricular component of POGO, why couldn’t we start looking at Oregon history as another part of our strategic plan? Emphasizing an examination of Oregon history that tells stories that haven’t always been focused on in the operatic space or even in the history classroom. So “Our Oregon” is that project. It encompasses youth operas being composed about Oregon history through a variety of ethnic lenses and other groups in Oregon that have contributed significantly to the fabric of our history, but aren’t always focused on in historical surveys.
Initially I had hoped to do it in historical order, beginning with an opera from a Native American perspective, then moving into an African American perspective, after which we would do Japanese and then Latinx. However after George Floyd’s murder, a lot of us were pivoting and really wanting to address that. Also Damien Geter (Portland Opera’s Interim Music Director & Artistic Advisor), joined the Portland Opera team, and he had these amazing connections with other composers in addition to himself in the African American community. So we decided that we would begin the series with Beatrice. And she’s such a remarkable figure and I was so excited about that.
Beatrice Morrow Cannady
Can you tell us a little bit about Beatrice and her story?
Beatrice Morrow Cannady was an activist in Portland, Oregon from about 1912 to 1935. We don’t really know the story of how she came to Portland – there’s actually a lot of mystery involved in the why. But regardless, she came to Oregon and married a man named Edward Daniel Cannady, who had started the Advocate, which at the time was the only African American paper in Portland.
And this was a time when there were very few black citizens in Oregon.
In Portland there were only about a thousand. They really needed a voice and a central point of advocacy. And unfortunately, many of the men that Edward had originally started the paper with had stepped back from the project.
He was alone with his little paper until Beatrice came around.
And Beatrice had an amazing amount of confidence. She let nothing scare her. She had no newspaper experience at all. No experience with type setting or editing or tracking down a story.And she just said – You know what? I can do that. And within a few years she essentially became a one-woman show as the editor and owner of the Advocate.
She was also one of the founding members of the Portland chapter of the NAACP and was responsible for seeding many chapters throughout Oregon. However our little opera focuses a great deal on her fight to prevent
The Birth of a Nation from showing here in Portland.
And just to provide context to our readers, The Birth of a Nation was a silent film about the Civil War which was released in 1915. It was very popular at the time due to an unprecedented display of technical brilliance, but it was also a violently racist film. The original proposed title of the work was The Clansman and it portrays the development of the KKK as an ideal organization.
The release of the film was controversial even at the time, and its impact was so profound that some historians feel that it was possibly single-handedly responsible for revitalizing the KKK as an organization.
Absolutely, it was controversial the minute it came out. There were protests in Hollywood and Los Angeles and New York. So Beatrice’s objections to the film were nothing new. But bringing it here to Oregon concerned her especially.
I think she felt it was even more dangerous for such a tiny community.
And indeed, once it started showing here, there was an increase of racialized violence.
She fought a long, hard fight over this. It took her 12 years before she was finally able to convince Portland theaters to not show it any longer.
To get there she involved the mayor, she involved the government – she knew everyone. And I think what was particularly remarkable about her – her bridge building. She invited people of all races and socioeconomic status into her home to share these teas. She had these interracial teas and she would seat these women that she invited so they could have their own interracial conversations and build community.
It wasn’t all just teas – she got her hands really dirty. She was truly hands-on and inexhaustible. Along with running the Advocate, she went into schools to talk about race and racial difference. She even had her own radio show. But the thing that really stood out to me in this remarkable life was that, believe it or not, she started out wanting to be an opera singer. I loved that music, art, and opera were so important to her. And so we begin our opera with that. We start out with her as the artist making a decision about how she can best contribute to her community.
Naomi Steele as Beatrice Morrow Cannady, photo by Chris Kim
What a perfect beginning to this opera. Whether it be singing or social activism, she is still using her voice to bring beauty and power into the world. How do you take such an inspiring life, all that research, and then transform it into an opera commission? Can you tell us a little bit about that process, specifically focusing on commissioning a work that’s geared towards middle schoolers and younger children. How do you make opera for them?
Well, that’s a really good question and one that I’m not entirely responsible for making possible. While I did all the initial research and laid the foundations, it was really Dave Ragland, our composer, and Mary McCallum, our librettist, who had the lion’s share of the work of taking this gigantic subject and pairing it down into 45 minutes. And those artists were ready to tackle a full-length opera, you know? And maybe someday we’ll get there with Beatrice, because there was a lot we weren’t able to include.
But what I enjoyed most about the creation process was when we talked to Mary and Dave and we knew immediately that they were the right fit.
They had already written an opera for Tennessee Opera’s outreach program, titled One Vote Won. They created a film with this opera and it had lovely music and was truly moving.
I thought – Okay, so this is a great team for us. And during our conversations, one of the things that Dave said is, “I’m really writing for that eighth grader in the back row. The one who maybe didn’t get enough sleep. Who might be drifting off during the middle of the show, but they’re gonna come back at the end and I want them to still be able to get something from it.”
And when Mary first took a swing at the project she handed us a 45-page play. We were all like, – Whoa, that’s really long for an opera! So, they worked together to cull it down and we did a lot of emailing back and forth discussing what to cut.
But one of the things I really wanted was a throughline of the opera – I think it’s really important that kids know that advocacy is an ongoing process.
Social justice is a journey. It’s not always an instant win. You have to keep trying. So I really want us to keep revisiting this idea of her fight against
The Birth of a Nation because she had to keep at it for years. So that became the thematic thread through the opera.
But to make it more accessible for children – for that, creating musical themes really helps. Have an increase of tempo and you see – Oh! This is the time when Beatrice has gone to work – and you hear that; you hear that struggle.
There’s this busyness in the musical themes that I think is really appropriate and helps a young audience stay connected emotionally throughout.
I love that. It’s such a great way for kids to be able to begin to access that art form. Speaking of which, more often than not, the audience of most operas are generally more adults, and I think that sometimes grownups are not sure if their kids are ready to watch an opera yet. Why do you think that opera is great for children? And what is a good way for them to be able to begin to explore it?
I actually think that kids are much more open to opera than adults are.
Kids don’t care how you tell them a story, as long as you tell them a good one. And kids typically respond to music. I always tell the kids that an opera is just a play that’s sung. That’s all it is. So they are actually super open to that.
Also, a kid is used to not understanding every single thing they see or hear around them. Whereas we adults start to feel uncomfortable or become defensive if we’re watching something that we don’t immediately understand. We react and push away. A kid doesn’t respond that way, and instead a kid leans in or lets it wash over them.
The attention span is the biggest issue for a little one though. You don’t want it to be too long. And it needs to be visually stimulating, which is why for the younger people, POGO is a great intro because we’re doing opera, but it’s always visual, so they have that component to hang their hats on.
As far as kids watching the full meal deal though, it really depends on the opera. I think most kids fourth grade and up can handle La Bohème.
And besides the subject matter, Carmen is a great starter, as well as Tosca. They’re to the point. They have stories, and they make sense.
The music’s immediately accessible, and you don’t need to know exactly what’s being said to understand what’s going on. I saw my first opera at seven.
It was Madame Butterfly, and those were in the days before super text.
I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I knew the emotions of what was going on. And that’s the other thing – I think that most people don’t credit themselves with having the ability to understand the depth of the visceral response that they will have to an opera.
I was actually just having a similar conversation with someone today about how comprehension isn’t always necessary for appreciation of art.
Particularly in the context of authors such as Virginia Woolf where the stream of consciousness can be a little bit inaccessible. But sometimes you don’t have to “understand” it, instead you can immerse yourself in it and feel that journey. Being submersed in the sensation of art sometimes communicates more of its intention than if you emphasize understanding every single word.
Right. And I think that as grownups, we lose that ability to be in a space where we just don’t necessarily “get it”. And that’s why kids are awesome to show art to. Kids are open to whatever experience rolls over them that day. They’re still curious and ready to explore. And they don’t feel bad if they don’t get it initially.
So how many students have now seen Beatrice?
Oh I haven’t calculated all of those numbers yet, but we have done 43 shows in 40 separate venues. I’ve been thrilled! My favorite thing this year is that all of the fourth and fifth graders of North Clackamas School District have seen Beatrice. Every single one of them! Also, I had actually been really worried about whether or not we’d be able to perform there because, you know, Beatrice does have some historically accurate language in it, and I’m trying to be really upfront with that because we don’t want to be creating discomfort or more damage.
On the other hand, both the creators felt that it was an important thing to portray. It’s a period in history in which this is the way words were spoken.
And I think that’s also a really important point that what may have been acceptable a hundred years ago is no longer acceptable and that language grows and changes.
So I had been concerned that we wouldn’t be able to do it, but actually we were able to book the show at the Beatrice Morrow Kennedy Elementary School, which was super cool! But then I got this call from the district level and they said – we want it for all of the schools in the district, so could we accommodate that? We then had to move some stuff around and find some dates, but that was super exciting. By the end of the run, I think it’ll probably be at least 10,000 students who will have seen Beatrice. I think – still need to run those final numbers though.
If our readers want to go see Beatrice themselves, is there a way for them to do that now or will there be a way in the future?
There is! The Walters Community Center in Hillsborough is doing the show on November 19th. That show is a ticketed event, but it’s a nominal fee.
So that’s one way to see it live. Otherwise if families are interested in seeing it, we do have Beatrice on screen. It will be available I think through December to be seen in our opera on screen series. Accessing that is actually through me. So they should look me up on the website.
It’s wonderful that you’re making sure there’s so many avenues for people to access this! Now as to the future of “Our Orgeon,” the next installment is set for 2024. Can you give us a little hint about what is to come?
Yes! So the show is from a Japanese American lens. There are a number of different subjects floating around. We have narrowed it to about four historical figures. But we want to get the composer in place before we make a final decision.
Can’t wait to see who is selected! For this and other upcoming projects, if our readers want to support POGO and these amazing commissions, what is the best way to help make these dreams keep happening?
Oh, what a wonderful question. We love dollars, and we love yours! If you would like to help support this program, you should reach out to our development department.
I’m very proud of Portland Opera. I’m very proud of POGO.
I’m proud of the artists who are involved with this program. That we are able to continue to, you know, take an art form that many people are unsure of and make it accessible.
Is there anything else that you would love to share?
I think that the only thing I would want to share is if you haven’t tried an opera yet, it’s time to try an opera. And if you don’t like this one, it doesn’t mean you don’t like opera. You just don’t like this one. And there are plenty of operas.
So give it a try!
Hannah Goodman as The Woman and Naomi Steele as Beatrice Morrow Cannady, photo by Chris Kim
This article was written by Alanna Love, a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing.