Ambitious new grassroots opera finds the medium to be a unique way to dissect social issues
Currently making its world premiere at The Yale, the original Oklahoma-created opera No Justice, No Peace considers real-world issues of police brutality and systemic racism with a well of carefully thought and deeply felt emotion. A cast of six and an orchestra pit of less than a dozen bring to life the experiences of the fictional Benson family in this one-act production. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at how and what this work came to be over the past few years leading to this debut.
The following interview was conducted with Kenneth R. Woods (aka Ray, librettist & producer), Chris Prather (music composer, librettist & producer), Megan Prather (librettist & producer), and Danielle L. Herrington (producer & Opera on Tap – OKC founder) for a feature in the Oklahoma Gazette, which you can read here.
Make Oklahoma Weirder: What is No Justice, No Peace about?
Chris Prather: No Justice, No Peace engages with the effects of police violence in ways that are oftentimes neglected. What was the family’s life like before and after one of these tragic situations? We get so caught up in the politicization of this issue we fail to see the humanity that is lost, the families that are changed forever, and the lives that are taken away. We focus our lens on the family so that we can all gain a deeper understanding of what they go through.
Kenneth (Ray) Woods: No Justice, No Peace is mainly a statement saying we want our voices to be heard. It’s a statement that says we aren’t just going to sit back and let the police get away with wrongful killings over and over again. So if our justice system isn’t going to do right by the people, then the people are going to let them know how wrong that is.
Megan Prather: No Justice, No Peace engages with the effects of police brutality in a way that we don’t see in the real world. I hate the term ‘the media,’ I’m a reporter myself after all, but some cable news networks tend to focus on the talking points provided to them by police departments while digging into irrelevant aspects of the victim’s past that might fill a news block, but leaves the public focusing on the vilification of the victim and their family rather than systemic issues and the family and community that are left broken. The coverage and conversations that often surround issues of police brutality also leave out the fact that every single person that was a victim of the police, if not apprehended randomly which we also see happen, deserved to have their day in court for whatever their perceived crime was. An officer should never be a judge, jury and executioner.
What do you hope to accomplish with No Justice, No Peace?
Ray: What we hope to accomplish is that people start to not only think about these issues at surface level and also think about the families that have to suffer from losing a loved one at the hands of police. A lot of the time they don’t receive justice, leaving them in the end with nothing and no closure. People focus so much on what the media is showing them about the victim that they tend to not think about the family at all. We just want to bring more awareness to them.
Megan: We hope that people will think about the aspects of police brutality that can oftentimes be ignored in the aftermath—the very real families and lives that are broken and impacted forever. I also hope that people will be reminded of the fact that some systems will never work as they’ve been deeply broken since their inception. Maybe if people can think about the universal feelings within these tragedies people will feel more empathy and urgency to take action.
What does opera allow that other art forms don’t with regard to expressing and addressing these topics?
Chris: One of the things I find so powerful about opera is that it allows the audience to feel as if they are going on a personal journey with the character in front of them. The character is sharing their most vulnerable moments allowing us as audience members to connect on a deeper level. Opera combines this intimate storytelling with music in a way that allows us to think more deeply about the topic being presented in a way that is unlike any other artform.
Danielle L. Herrington: Opera is a distinct art form in that it does not rely on microphones to send the sound into the room. Therefore, the performers must connect deeply into their bodies to produce the acoustical experience. It’s why opera is often described as visceral. With that in mind, these very intimate, raw, and earnest emotions tied to these sensitive social justice topics can be felt by the character and the audience in a completely unfiltered way.
Ray: Opera allows you to actually engage and go on a journey with the actors. Other than just hearing the music, you get to see, hear and feel the emotion of the compositions and the singing. A topic like this being done through opera will allow it to be felt on a deeper level.
Where did this opera start?
Chris: So originally I created the 10-minute version back in 2019 with the help of Olivia Wells, a local librettist, after conducting community interviews with people of color and police officers. I knew after premiering the 10-minute version that this story needed to be expanded into a full one-act opera in order to do it justice. Next, I brought on Kenneth R. Woods (I call him Ray) and Megan Prather (my twin!) to help develop this idea into a full story. It was important to us as we expanded the opera that it didn’t just come from our own perspectives, but from the experiences of those in the community.
How did this opera develop into the project it is today?
Chris: Once Megan and Ray joined the writing team, the three of us grew the story into a 90-minute one act opera. We came up with a structure for the story and identified all the spots where we needed songs. Then we would come up with keywords to describe the emotional core of what each song needed to convey. After that we would write the songs letting those emotions guide the direction of our words and content. Once we had the words written for the songs I would set them to music. We completed the opera around 2020 and eventually, with the help of Opera on Tap-OKC, held an unstaged workshop in 2021 for an 80 person audience so we could get feedback. Getting feedback was so crucial especially since we had been living with the story for years already. We needed fresh eyes and perspectives to see the work and share their thoughts. This helped us to address some of the aspects to the story that needed to be filled out more. After the workshop and with the feedback guiding us, we wrote an additional song that built on the relationship between Chloe and Anthony (Mother and Son), expanded one of the duets to be longer, and fine tuned our dialogue. The opera everyone will be seeing this month is the fine tuned version Megan, Ray, and I wrote taking into consideration the experiences of our interviewees, feedback from our workshop audience, and feedback from our cast and other team members. This really only covers the sound aspect of the opera. Our directors Cheyanne Marie and Rory Behrens are coming up with the staging, costumes, and lightning which will take everything to the next level!
What have been some challenges in creating this production?
Chris: The two biggest challenges we’ve had to face are financial and issues resulting from COVID-19. The pandemic forced us to hold off on the workshop for a year.
Ray: Dealing with covid these past couple years and then just the fundraising aspect.
Megan: COVID has thrown a couple of wrenches our way and we’re still in the midst of fundraising!
Danielle: Grassroots projects are no joke. Lack of funding – despite intense fundraising, grant-writing, and crowdsourcing efforts – has defined the planning of this production. As the creative team and producers, we believe strongly in the power of NJNP and sharing this musical experience with the community (we’ve volunteered probably hundreds of hours); however, it’s been a challenge to persuade the public and corporations to support us financially. I think the lack of public performances due to the pandemic contributed to this, as well as the genre of opera, which can still be perceived as elitist (though opera theatres nation-wide are seeking to change this!).
What have been some highlights?
Chris: My favorite moment of creating music is the day we get together with the singers or musicians to play the piece for the first time! Composers spend the majority of their lives staring at a piece of paper or a computer screen in a room trying to come up with ideas completely alone. That day is the first time we finally get to share our work with living, breathing people instead of the walls in our room. The workshop and pit orchestra reading are perfect examples of this. The next one I’m looking forward to is the Sitzprobe where we will have the singers and orchestra together for the first time!
Ray: Getting to work with everyone and creating bonds with these incredible and talented individuals and overcoming obstacles that we’ve faced in getting this production put together and for everyone to be able to witness. Just being able to see our creation come to life has been the biggest highlight for me.
Megan: I have been absolutely blown away by the amount of talent we have right here in Oklahoma City. Every single one of our cast members are incredible. Watching people’s artistic process has also been interesting and I’ve loved working with Chris and Ray so much. But I think the biggest highlight was the workshop performance back in August. Watching the words you wrote come to life and watching the audience member’s become enveloped by the story– there’s no feeling like it.
Danielle: Working with a creative team (composer/librettist(s)) is an absolute gift. A part of being a classical performer involves preservation and history, which means the bulk of our repertoire we engage with is written by those that are dead. Though new opera and new classical music has been on the rise over the last 30-40 years, it is still rare to work closely with the creative artists who conceive a piece. I’m honored to hear their work come to life and help be a part of its evolution into a full production. Plus, our singers are truly incredible and embody the work with such tenacity and commitment that elevate the music.
What have you learned from this opera?
Danielle: Social justice topics are often polarizing. People feel strongly on both sides of the issue and rarely take time to dive deep into the innate complexities. But Chris, Ray, and Megan have captured something truly unique in NJNP. They humanize the experience of loss, taking us through the grieving process, while mingling it with nostalgia and hope. They avoid a villain yet still stand strong in their convictions through the power of a family and its love. They have continuously sought balance and honesty in storytelling by looking to each other and the community for feedback. It’s been an inspiration to witness this multi-year creative process.
Chris: I’m always trying to remind myself to not take people’s criticisms personally. This is something all artists and creatives have to go through, and it’s difficult when it involves something so personal like the music you create. With this topic especially, I’m getting a good reminder that not everyone is going to like or support what we do. The important thing is that I believe in the work we are doing and our team believes in the work we are doing. Nothing anyone says to us about the opera can deflate that type of positive energy.
Are there any works (opera or otherwise) that have helped serve as inspiration or guidance for No Justice, No Peace?
Chris: I took inspiration from contemporary operas like The Turn of the Screw and Peter Grimes. Those were both really helpful when structuring our opera. Benjamin Britten is masterful in the way he paces a story! Musically, this opera takes inspiration from classical music, blues, and commercial music from film/video games, including artists like Nina Simone, Benjamin Britten, Billie Holiday, Yoshihisa Hirano, Igor Stravinisky, John Williams, Jake Heggie, and this super obscure JRPG game from my childhood that no one will know by composers Takeo Miratsu and Dennis Martin. Musically, this work has a unique character to it that is different from what people typically hear from an opera because of that blend of my different influences.
Why the title No Justice, No Peace?
Chris: No Justice, No Peace is a well known protest slogan dating back to the 1980s used by groups protesting acts of violence committed against African Americans, including instances of police brutality. It was also used heavily during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. My first time hearing this phrase was when learning about the Los Angeles riots in ‘92 that stemed from the murder of Latasha Harlins and the acquittal of the four officers who brutalized Rodney King.
We think this title is fitting because it immediately brings the issue of police brutality to mind and alludes to the qualities the Benson family struggles to find in their lives. It also holds true. A world without justice for all cannot know true peace.
Is the opera as heavy-handed as its title seems to imply?
Chris: I don’t think so. Writing this opera has been quite the balancing act. Before we began writing we decided to approach it in a way that doesn’t come off as preachy or like we are telling the audience what to think and believe. We wanted to create a story and characters that feel very real so that every line that is sung or spoken feels like it is coming from that character instead of it coming across like a character is spouting the writer’s beliefs and opinions. I find that heavy-handed moments like that take you out of the story when what you want to feel is immersed.
Subsequently, is heavy-handedness inherently a good or bad thing or neither?
Chris: Yes, I think heavy-handedness in any type of art doesn’t work well. The audience needs the space to question things on their own without feeling like they are being directed to a certain answer or perspective. Otherwise you could end up alienating audience members or creating an environment where people get defensive about their own beliefs instead of being open to asking questions.
Why the decision to include spoken word alongside traditional vocal performance?
Chris: So typically Opera is all sung-through. In our show, there are moments with spoken dialogue sprinkled in between the songs, kind of like a musical, but with an operatic style of singing. We felt that having spoken words versus sung-through added to the drama and realism of the story. This is especially present during the scene involving an officer encounter. We wanted that scene to be as realistic as possible which led us to having spoken dialogue there and eventually throughout the opera.
Danielle: Interesting fact: it’s an overgeneralization to categorize opera as completely sung through. That solely applies to Italian opera. The French, German, Spanish, and British traditions include spoken dialogue. As an opera historian, I believe that as the American musical began to develop in the early 20th-century, opera as completely sung through became a defining distinction between opera and musicals. However, during the workshop, I encouraged Chris to include more melodrame, which is the act of putting instrumentation underneath spoken dialogue. This addition makes the spoken sections less abrupt and continues the musical experience despite the lack of singing.
In what ways has this been a collaborative effort?
Ray: From top to bottom there has been collaboration with everything in this production. We wanted everybody involved to be comfortable with every decision that was made, every idea we had, and be able to express themselves when they had ideas. Also there was a lot of community involvement. We conducted interviews with individuals, and last August we did a workshop where we invited the community to come watch a performance of the opera for free and afterwards we had a talkback and took feedback from the audience which helped us in our revision process. So from the writing, to the staging, the fundraising etc., this project wouldn’t be as special as it is without the help of the whole crew and the community.
What would this opera be without collaboration?
Megan: I don’t think this opera would have worked out at all without collaboration, and I think Chris and Ray would tell you the same. Every single person on our team, whether its our director Chey or our lead cast member Jordan, has had different life experiences that have contributed to making the work more full. Where one of us lacks, another excels. The collaboration hasn’t existed just among our team either. A piece of feedback given to us after the workshop was that our therapist’s dialogue didn’t seem realistic. So, we reached out to local therapist Walker Milligan to help us understand what he does better and work through some of the dialogue kinks. Chris did interviews with community members before he began working on the opera that contributed to its shaping. This work, like most good works, could not exist without collaboration amongst our team members and the community.
What are the positives and negatives of being a grassroots production?
Chris: Well the biggest challenge is fundraising. We’ve all had to be very resourceful in order to fund this project. I love that every person I’m working with is someone I’ve developed a friendship with over the years. We are all contributing our passion for this issue and love of opera to create something more special than any of us would have done on our own. I feel like we have the freedom to fully pursue our vision for this work because of the supportiveness and bond we share with each other.
Danielle: Positive: we thrive on flexibility, we can stretch a budget (and still make magic), and we value every person dedicated to our small organization. Negative: non-profits are historically underfunded. Non-profits in the classical performing arts, even more so. Opera is marginalized in the states and can often seem culturally irrelevant to the average American. Large-scale efforts in major big cities since the 1980s have been seeking to change this stigma, but we’re far from being there, especially in the OKC. We hope this incredibly relevant topic of NJNP, and its local perspective, will show opera is being reimagined.
What is Opera on Tap?
Danielle: Opera on Tap – OKC is a non-profit 501(c)(3), comprised of local professional vocalists. Performing curated shows nearly every month in local spaces (bars/restaurants/coffee shops), we seek to expose new audiences to live opera. Our driving force is “opera for the people.” We believe that opera is a vital art form that reminds people they are allowed to feel. It is full contact, visceral, vibratory. The physical aspect of operatic singing in an intimate setting inspires some kind of response from an audience. Our dynamic roster performs a range of operatic repertoire, and through their interpretations and portrayed emotions, listeners are pulled into a truly immersive experience. People want to be entertained, but they also want to feel connected to that entertainment. Opera does that in a way they may not have experienced before. Plus, we believe in opera being accessible and democratic; therefore, our shows are inexpensive to attend in a laid-back, welcoming environment. Additionally, with opera being a marginalized art form, trained local musicians need more opportunities to perform their craft. Our monthly events allow them many performance opportunities.
Why and how is Opera on Tap involved in this production?
Danielle: Chris is a brilliant composer with such a distinct compositional style and voice. We learned this when he was selected to write a short opera for our first 10-minute Opera Festival in 2018. He agreed to write again for our second festival in 2019 and that happened to be the first short version of NJNP. So when he reached out about partnering with us on the expansion of the opera, we were ecstatic. We are a grassroots organization, with our focus on audience experience and performer opportunities, meaning this has been our biggest, most developed project to produce. Beyond fundraising efforts, I have guided the project through the theatrical production process.
What does The Yale bring to the production as a venue?
Danielle: The Yale is an art deco-inspired theater. Though built in 1910 as a performing arts venue, it’s gone through many renditions, with the most successful being a 1940s movie theatre. It was recently renovated and re-designed to suit multiple types of events and will comfortably house a 200-person audience each night. The swanky styling and the conveniently located bars will create what we believe will be an exceptional ambience for the audience to experience No Justice, No Peace.
Has anyone in the production worked on something thematically similar to No Justice, No Peace in the past?
Chris: I wrote an opera titled, Nicer When You Smile, inspired by the #metoo movement, alongside Oliva Wells for Opera On Tap-OKC’s first 10-minute opera festival back in 2017. That experience lit a new passion for writing opera in me I didn’t know I had, or think I was skilled enough to do. I also recently had my piece “Two Bicycles”, inspired by Channel Miller’s closing statement she read to her sexual assaulter during the trial, performed by the Oklahoma Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Matthew Troy.
What can people expect from No Justice, No Peace?
Chris: No matter what your beliefs about this issue are, we hope people will leave thinking about this issue in a more nuanced way with the humanity at the forefront.
Ray: They can expect to go through just about every emotion when watching this. We just want people to stop looking at this issue as just black and white and put themselves in the victims and their families shoes and see how they would feel.
Will this opera be performed again?
Chris: We have hired the company Onyx Lane to professionally audio and video record the opera. This is an important step in order to get our opera exposed to other companies who may want to perform this work.
Megan: We can only hope!
Ray: We do believe this opera has legs to be performed more after this. Hopefully everyone else thinks so too!
aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.