Opera Philadelphia continues to innovate and develop work that broadens and diversifies its audience with Tyshawn Sorey’s Save the Boys. Teaming up with countertenor John Holiday and pianist Grant Loehnig, Sorey carves space for Black voices in an arena that has rarely done so on its own. The performance exudes a powerful message that is often muffled and muted elsewhere.
A cool, fiery show
Sorey’s latest with Opera Philadelphia draws inspiration from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem Save the Boys. The poem is a sort of cry for help to save the boys who may meet the narrator’s fate. Stringing together striking contrasts in metaphor, lines like nor quench the fires I’ve madly nursed/Nor cool this dreadful raging thirst illustrate a bloodied, fiery divide. The narrator is tired of people’s racist shit—condolences are not enough to console the pain and the deaths of their Black siblings.
Coming in at 20 minutes, Save the Boys is not a respite, but a meditation, resilient and sobering. Holiday’s voice is harrowing in its relentless elevation—something about opera singers is exhausting in a steadily exhilarating way. Holiday makes singing opera look easy, but his control is tempered with the kind of fire that Harper herself breathes into her poetry. Countered with Loehnig’s sparse, haunting chords, the adaptation feels like the calm before the storm, the quiet before a riot, the slow re-emergence from hell that permits only a few breaths.
Sorey, Loehnig, and Holiday convey provocative imagery, with gripping analogies to hell, spells, and fire. There are ominous warnings of “departed joys” and “seeds of sin [that] bring crops of woe.” The melancholy is fierce and unyielding, and yet, this performance’s interpretation is amplified by a stillness in the verses. Harper’s staunch resistance and rebellion reverberate throughout this invocation. The conduit of Holiday’s voice demands that you listen to the poem’s pleas. The narrator knows hell, and doesn’t want it for anyone, especially for the Black boys with a light still glimmering in their eyes.
Despair and resilience
Sorey’s graceful hand becomes more and more evident with each new work. While Save the Boys doesn’t carry the same breadth as Cycles of My Being, it coils plenty of tension and energy in its compact package, throttling the friction through tempered song. Don’t take this performance lightly—it will weigh heavy on your soul in the best way possible.
The production complements the performance’s dark tone and message. The set feels deliberately uninspired. In what looks like a rehearsal room as a backdrop, light from scattered lamps hovers like a warm evening glow. The cinematography moves in close, a gently intended claustrophobia, but isn’t compelling on its own. The perspective feels intimate, and its minimalism keeps you focused on a salient poem and a spellbinding voice.
Absorb this demonstration of resilience, despair, and precarious cries of hope. Sorey’s refreshing, innovative vision brings another nuanced performance to a form starving for these kinds of stories.
Image description: SInger John Holiday, a Black man, performs in front of a brick backdrop with a music stand in front of him. He wears white-rimmed glasses, a wide-brimmed black hat, a maroon blazer, and a patterend white, gray, and black scarf.
What, When, Where
Save the Boys. Written and directed by Tyshawn Sorey, with lyrics adapted from Save the Boys, a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Available for streaming on demand via subscription on the Opera Philadelphia Channel through May 31, 2021. www.operaphila.tv.
Closed captioning is available.