SWAN Season Starts with Inspiring Sojourner Truth Opera

Linda McInerny

Linda McInerny
Producer of “Truth”

I visited Northampton, Massachusetts on February 16 for the first official SWAN 2012 event – a production of Truth, a new folk opera about the fiery abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, Sojourner Truth. Hats off to the all-women creative team behind this beautiful and inspiring piece – producer/director Linda McInerney, composer Paula Kimper, and librettist Talaya Delaney.

The production was remarkable on so many levels. First of all, it literally sprang from a dream. After working on a previous historical opera with composer Paula Kimper, producer Linda McInerney had a dream one night of sitting in an audience with Kimper and watching singer Evelyn Harris performing in a nineteenth century costume. When McInerney woke up, she decided to produce an opera based on the life of Sojourner Truth and featuring Harris, who had toured for 18 years with Sweet Honey in the Rock, the legendary African-American women’s acapella ensemble. Two years later, Truth premiered at the beautiful 800-seat Northampton Academy of Music Theatre and played to three nights of cheering sold-out houses.

Many of composer Paula Kimper’s tunes are still echoing in my head, even though I am now 3,000 miles away in San Francisco. Evelyn Harris brought her powerful voice and spirit to the leading role of Sojourner. Unlike the female characters in most operas, Sojourner was presented as a strong-minded three dimensional character – a woman who escaped from slavery, who loved and lost her children, who could not read or write, who relied on her faith, and who became one of the leading civil rights advocates of her time.

Operas are a good match for stories about heroic, larger-than-life characters like Sojourner Truth, but they are challenging and expensive to produce because there are so many people involved. During the two year development period, producer Linda McInerney raised funds from foundation grants, individual donors, two Kickstarter campaigns, and performances of excerpts of the opera as it was written. She used a mixture of professional and community-based singers in order to present the premiere of Truth with a cast of 21 people plus additional chorus members and a 15-member orchestra. Her set made very effective use of projected slides to provide backdrops for the action.

It was so wonderful to see Sojourner Truth’s story as a fully-produced opera in the beautiful Northampton Academy of Music Theatre, the sixth oldest opera house in the country. It was clearly a huge amount of work, and I was so grateful to these artists for honoring Sojourner Truth’s historic significance by creating a production that accurately reflected the scale of her passions and accomplishments. I hope more women artists will follow their lead and find ways to produce women’s stories in our biggest and best performance spaces.

The production was also an amazing reflection of the history and community of Northampton. Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery in 1826 and eventually moved to Florence, Massachusetts (now a part of Northampton) in 1844. If you visit the town, you can take a walking tour of the places where she, Frederick Douglass, David Ruggles, William Lloyd Garrison, and countless others met, talked, and worked so hard for racial equality, women’s rights, religious tolerance, and peace.

When I stood and cheered at the end of the opera, I was cheering in part for that long and proud tradition of activism. When I lived in Northampton for fourteen years and created WomenArts there, I could feel the energy of the ancestors who had made that town a receptive environment for my work. It’s over 160 years later and their ideals of justice and equality still inform the life of the community they loved. The opera gave me a chance to experience their legacy of strength and determination at a deep emotional level.

Thanks so much to everyone involved in Truth for this beautiful start to SWAN 2012. It is healing and empowering to see productions like Truth that remind us of our deepest and best instincts, and it is absolutely thrilling to see women’s stories in big, beautiful theatres like the Northampton Academy of Music. Thank you for this stellar example of what can be accomplished when women artists act on their dreams!

Martha Richards
Executive Director, WomenArts

P.S. WGBY is making a documentary about the creation of Truth and a DVD will be available soon. You can read additional reviews with pictures by clicking here>>