Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Garden of Song: Quincy on the Front Lines of the Revolution


            Quincy history is all about the Adams family. John and Abigail Adams remain America's all-time power couple: John as the single most effective advocate for the nation-birthing break from British rule and a player of essential roles in establishing an independent United States. And Abigail as "founding mother" because of her advocacy of the rights and claims of women in political, moral and human terms in letters to her diplomat/absent husband and to others.
            I knew something about those letters. But it took a powerful work of art, a recently composed opera called "A Distant Love: Songs of John and Abigail Adams" performed last weekend by Chelsea Opera at the Adams National Historical Park, to make me realize how important, and universal, the letters still are.
            Anne and I know Adams country in Quincy, a municipality that back in Revolutionary days was known as East Braintree. We know Penn's Hill, the site Abigail took young John Quincy to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill is; we know that Dorchester Heights (where captured guns lugged across New England by Henry Knox drove the British out of Boston) overlooks the old city of Boston.We know where to find the more modest homestead the Adamses lived in before acquiring the handsomer estate where the national park is located today.
            So we figured we were on top of the subject of the English language opera commissioned by the John Adams Institute (music by Gary S. Fagin, libretto by Terry Quinn), based on the famous letters exchanged by John and Abigail during their lengthy separation as John served his newborn country in public ways, as men did, and Abigail kept the home farm going and the family safe even though the war at her doorsteps in the first years of separation and deprivation her family's constant companion until its end.
            But I not prepared to be as moved, patriotically and in all other emotions, as I was by the opera's ability to drive Abigail's passionate words into our hearts.
            After the performance I told Victoria Tralongo,who sang Abigail's role, how moved I was by her singing of the lyrics taken from the letters.
            "She has all the great lines," I said.
            "Yes," the singer replied. "But it takes the music to make you feel them."
            For 11 years, from 1774 when he left for the Continental Congress though his wartime service raising money and support for the revolution in Europe, John Adams' life was all about politics.     Politics of the international diplomatic variety meant painstakingly cultivating support while living among foreigners and enduring their customs is the subject of his letters. Adams despised the French appetite for courtly manners and the play-acting of the aristocracy. He came to admire the Dutch, from whose outwardly skeptical tight-fisted, but essentially "open-hearted" persona he won an absolutely essential loan to keep the America cause alive in dark days. His letters speak of getting used to life in Amsterdam, of canals, bridges, "shaking on a horse" (the Dutch view of exercise), communicating with the Dutch who spoke a language, called Dutch, "spoken only by -- the Dutch," the nastiness of a North Sea winter, a city turned to ice, and "skating, skating, skating."
             The letters reflect his sense of duty to the nation and the depth of his longing for his soul mate wife and his home: "When, oh when, shall I see those fields... and when shall I see them... with you?" 
            But it is Abigail's letters that have all the good lines. In 1775 when the fighting had begun around Boston, and the reality of war, and the fears for what that reality might prove to be for oneself and one's loved ones had become her new reality, Abigail writes of "canon mounted on Beacon Hill, entrenchments dug upon the Neck..." And of human consequences: "Warnings, rumors, Mothers hoarding goods, whisking children from the streets./ All males from fifteen to sixty hauling muskets to the training ground... Our once so placid lives in disarray! ... Refugees from Boston seek asylum at the house... Try to imagine, husband, how we live!"
            But the threats of an aggressive enemy only intensify a determination to resist. Once the shooting starts, these letters tell us, there goes the olive branch, and out come the bloody thoughts. To the Brits' offer of clemency to those who quit the fight, she responds, "They know not who we are! Once we have cut them down -- like grass before the scythe -- then, yes, we shall cease to fight."
               Even, she says (in a song the opera titles "Women"), if the "men" of the Patriots' army are ordered to withdraw from the Boston theater of war, "and we should be attacked, our common foe would find a race of Amazons in its path!/ No clutch of shuddering wives -- a race of Amazons in America!"
            I can't shake the power of that image: Amazons in America! OK, I tell myself, the country's in deep trouble -- bring out our Amazons!
            Abigail takes aim at Tories too, particularly those members of the Church of England who fill the pews "and pray for the king! A man whose boot presses on their necks!"
            And she has words to regret that original sin of the American nation both she and her husband are struggling to bring forth. In a song called "Slavery" she concludes: "We'll vow to die before we cede our freedom/ then turn and clap another's wrist in chains."
            I don't know if you can sum up the contradiction any better than that.
            And in a final song, "Avowal," Abigail promised that given her awareness of the importance of his task, she will never plead with John him to end their separation, in words such as these: "Come home, my love, come back to me./ The stars above wait no less faithfully..." 
             Ms. Tralongo is correct. I can share the words on the page, but not the impact of the music. If you get the opportunity to attend this musical production, whether or not Independence Day is just around the corner, be sure to go.