Townsend brings story of transformed Underground Railroad to stage

04/24/2014 12:00 AM

04/23/2014 4:11 PM

The little-known story of the nation’s first private historically black college comes to life through Townsend Opera’s latest production.

The company will present the world premiere of the reworked American opera “Tawawa House,” about a Civil War-era resort in Ohio that became a stop on the Underground Railroad and later was transformed into Wilberforce University.

The work by American composer Zenobia Powell Perry was written in 1984 and has been edited and rewritten since. Townsend’s general and artistic director, Matthew Buckman, said a friend of Perry’s, her biographer Jeannie Pool, helped bring the work to the company’s attention. They began working with her on the story in February 2013.

“We wanted to get into doing more American opera with an American theme,” Buckman said. “The fun thing about doing a world premiere is constantly adjusting it as you go along. It really is a living, breathing thing until the performance.”

While the original was a stage piece composed of vignettes, the new production is more of a long-form story with additional spirituals and other music woven throughout. Buckman said the revamped piece is a testament to the history behind the story.

“There is a great historical perspective to this opera, and it’s a great learning tool. This highlights a part of American history that is washed over in the history lessons,” Buckman said. “This highlights people that were way ahead of their time in race relations. The story talks about white people and black people that worked together. It is a part of time that we can’t and shouldn’t forget.”

Townsend has partnered with Sankofa Theatre Company, Modesto’s first black theater company, for the show. The production has about 18 named roles, with 40 cast members in all. The nine principal characters are all free or escaped slaves who live and work at Tawawa House.

The hotel was built as a resort where white slave owners could come with their mixed-race families to vacation in the free state of Ohio. Over the span of the opera’s eight years, the resort goes from good times to hard times and ultimately to the founding of the university.

New York- and Chicago-based tenor Anthony P. McGlaun plays Eddie, a freed slave and groundskeeper at Tawawa House. McGlaun wasn’t aware of the resort’s historical importance before signing onto the production. But after researching the topic, he is even more excited to be a part of the show.

“I love being part of a production that is so powerful and profound,” McGlaun said. “The underlying point is about the power in education. You can change the world through knowledge, you can set forth your own destiny with the power of knowledge. The thirst for knowledge will cause people to be heroic in perilous and hard situations.”

The opera is set entirely at Tawawa House and uses traditional spirituals and praise music throughout. Buckman brought in the founder and artistic director of the Merced ShakespeareFest, Heike Hambley, to direct because of her experience with musical theater.

But filling out the largely black cast proved challenging. Buckman said many of the experienced black actors in Northern California already were engaged in the upcoming San Francisco Opera production of “Show Boat.”

The cast includes sopranos from San Francisco and Sacramento, as well as tenors from New York and Chicago.

The closing performance on Sunday will feature an African American cultural festival after the performance with song, dance and food. Buckman said he hopes the opera will attract people from across the region. And he is looking forward to partnering with Sankofa and the area’s black community in the future.

There will be a free preview at 6 p.m. today at the Mistlin Honda dealership on McHenry Avenue with the principal cast.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to build the relationships with the community. They were not only very supportive of the production, they opened up their connections of friends and families,” he said. “It’s great to be able to engage the African American community to tell a piece of history.”

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