This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, and South Conway composer Ellen Schwindt has completed an opera about Brown just in time for the sesquicentennial. A Crime of Righteousness will be offered in a workshop performance at the World Fellowship Center in Albany, NH, on the Fourth of July, at 7:30 PM, with a world premiere on July 5 at 4:00 PM at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine.
Contending interpretations of John Brown as martyr vs. John Brown as murderer drive the opera through two of the main roles—Julia Ward Howe, who adores Brown, and Robert Penn Warren, who saw the schemer and scoundrel behind the righteous pretensions. Mary Edes, soprano, sings Julia Ward Howe's part and Hans Stafford, baritone, sings the role of Robert Penn Warren. These characters meet in a history lecture sometime in the 1930s, and while the lecture is going on, the two principals explore their differences. John Brown inhabits another part of the stage and sings through the episodes of his life. Nick Gunn sings the role of John Brown.
Schwindt, who grew up in Kansas, sees the darker side of the renowned abolitionist, who achieved national prominence after his murderous sojourn in that state. Brown is generally extolled as a prescient hero of the emancipation movement, and is credited with inciting what is still often regarded as an inevitable national bloodbath over the issue of slavery. Schwindt, however, believes that Brown's more likely effect was to simply close the door on any lingering hope for a peaceful solution. Her opera, A Crime of Righteousness, questions whether violence is ever an effective means of ending injustice.
The opera follows Brown through the major scenes of his adult life, during which he depended increasingly on other people's money to support himself and his 20 children. When he moved from his longtime home in Ohio he left behind a trail of prosecutions for unpaid debts. He once mortgaged the same farm to several different people, separately but simultaneously, when he did not yet even hold title to it. On more than one occasion he accepted funds for one proposed project only to divert that money to another, without the knowledge or permission of his investors. Usually he adopted a tone of self-righteousness, blaming the perfidy of others for his own failures, yet the only actor in those episodes who seems to have crossed the line into fraud was Brown himself.
Slavery presented the perfect stage for Brown's self-righteous inclination, and a clique of wealthy New England abolitionists reacted generously to Brown's eternally outstretched hand. Those who funded the Emigrant Aid Society to fill Kansas Territory with antislavery settlers also provided a healthy stake for Brown, whose response to the tensions there was to enlist some of his sons and neighbors in the serial kidnapping and murder of unarmed settlers along Pottawatomie Creek.
From Kansas, Brown's criminal ambitions turned national, and under the guise of returning to Kansas he solicited funds to bankroll his deadly raid on Harper's Ferry. That foolhardy endeavor led only to more mayhem, to Brown's execution, and to inflamed sectional tension on the eve of a crucial election. John Brown actively invited martyrdom, perhaps as redemption for his knavery or, as he would have construed it, in confirmation of his righteous life.
Four local businesses are sponsoring the production: Fryeburg Veterinary Hospital, Hastings Law Office, Mason and Mason Technology Insurance Services, Inc., and The Inn at Crystal Lake. Mountain Top Music Center, where Schwindt is music director, is collaborating on the project with World Fellowship Center (603-447-2280 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center. Admission to the workshop performance is $10. Tickets to the premiere on July 5 are $15. A students and senior rate of $5 is offered for both performances. Ticket sales and reservations are available at 207-935-9232 or at email@example.com.