New opera confronts gun violence in America, features compositions by ASU professors

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere presentation of “Proximity,” a trio of new American operas commissioned by Lyric, featured the compositions and vocals of two Arizona State University faculty mambers.

“Proximity” explores technology’s intrusion into our everyday life, the impact of gun violence on cities and neighborhoods, and humanity’s troubled relationship with the environment.

The longest of the three operas, “The Walkers,” addresses gang warfare and gun violence. It features a music score by Daniel Bernard Roumain, associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, with Gordon Hawkins, professor of voice in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, as Preacher Man, and a libretto by renowned playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

The Chicago Crusade has called the trilogy “searing in its intimacy, revolutionary in its structure and groundbreaking in its technical wizardry.” Roumain’s score is described by the Chicago Sun-Times as “rich, captivating and sometimes cinematic” and Smith’s libretto is referred to as “a potent mix of history, humor, poetry and hope.”

Haitian-American composer Roumain is a composer of solo, chamber, orchestral and operatic works and has composed an array of film, theater and dance scores. Known for his signature violin sounds infused with myriad electronic and African American music influences, Roumain has published more than 300 works, including the interdisciplinary chamber opera "We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Hawkins, known for his in-depth interpretations and lush baritone voice, has performed the most renowned operas with leading opera companies and in prestigious opera halls around the world. He is a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition and the Washington National Opera’s Artist of the Year award.

Smith is a legendary actress, playwright, teacher and author. She is a University Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her plays include a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards nominations, and she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Medal and a MacArthur Genius Grant Fellowship. “The Walkers” is her first opera.

Smith debuted her one-woman play, “The Arizona Project,” about women, justice and the law at ASU to commemorate the 2006 naming of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. The play was commissioned by ASU’s Future Arts Research artist-driven research program.

“It was an extraordinary experience to make a piece specifically for the law school named after Sandra Day O'Connor and to meet her and be a part of the ASU community,” Smith said. 

She has been credited with creating a new form of theater: one-person shows in which she plays all the parts based on verbatim excerpts of interviews she conducts with real people about social issues. For this opera, she interviewed people whose lives have been touched by gun violence, working through the organization Chicago CRED (Create Real Economic Destiny).

The title “The Walkers” is inspired by the individuals like Arne Duncan, Curtis Toler and other staff of Chicago CRED who stick with our most vulnerable youth and don’t give up on those who try to transform their lives.

Several of the characters in the opera are people Smith interviewed, and others are a mixture of real people who work as counselors and people who have been helped by the organization.

The title “Proximity,” Smith said, was selected to represent how proximate we are to the things that we think have nothing to do with us.

“That problem over there, what’s our proximity to it,” Smith said. “We can’t live in some of these communities. But if we understand our proximity, maybe there is something that can be done.”

All three artists share their experiences with the creation of “The Walkers,” as well as their insights on and hopes for the connections between the arts, gun violence and other social issues.

The following conversation has been edited for length.

Question: Have any of you worked together before? If so, when and on what?

Gordon Hawkins: Daniel and I worked together on “Harvest,” which was premiered at ASU. I feel like I have worked with Anna, but we have not. I am an admirer of her work and am a huge fan. I feel like we know each other because the whole process of putting “Proximity” together has been over a couple of years.

Anna Deavere Smith: That’s right.

Daniel Roumain: Absolutely. We know each other in the same circles.

Q: I understand that each one of you was either asked by the director, Yuval Sharon, or curator, Renée Fleming, to become part of “Proximity.” What was your first thought or response to working on it, specifically “The Walkers?”

Roumain: Any opportunity to work with the great Anna Deavere Smith and the great Gordon Hawkins is something that I am not going to say no to, as well as Renée Fleming and Yuval Sharon. I have known Anna's work for most of my life. A lot of the things that I say yes to are based on trust and intrigue and want and need. I really wanted to work with Anna, but I also felt like I needed to work with Anna, because I feel that her work is so humane and focused and rooted in community. I was born in Chicago and had written an opera before. ... With the initial libretto and ideas that Anna provided, I was motivated, because for me it's all about the words. The words are the music. My job is to draw it out. The first draft was mesmerizing. I was seduced, compelled, which is very rare for me, to write this music and be a part of this production.

Smith: Based on my play “Notes From the Field” about the school-to-prison pipeline, which she had seen in New York City, Renée asked me to consider writing a little opera about gun violence. The first artist I met was Yuval, and then I met Daniel in my office at NYU. ...My idea was that I would first interview singers that Daniel and Yuval were excited about working with and then look for characters based on those interviews. I was successful, I think, in finding a character for Gordon, specifically a human being for him to represent. He is called Preacher Man, Reverend Craig Nash, who is a part of the Chicago CRED community.

Hawkins: Artists are used to interpreting the material in front of them. We get the score, get the look ready, we get the text, we see the character and we interpret. We find a way to connect ourselves to them. My performing history is that I interpolate and interpret villains and characters. What Anna actually did in that interview and over time was she looked at me and saw me. Much of my evolution has been embracing the vulnerability of really putting myself out there without any pretext. But to actually put yourself up on the stage and reveal yourself on the stage through another entity in a completely different part of the country doing completely different types of community involvement through a character created for you is a wonderful liberating gift that you gave me and other fellow artists.  

Question: You are all artists and educators in your respective areas. How does the artist in you influence the educator in you, and vice versa?

Smith: For me, the educator and the artist happened very early on, when I got a job teaching at the same school where I trained, the American Conservatory Theater. I know that Gordon and Daniel will be able to connect to this — the way that you have to concentrate in a classroom with young artists. You have to pay such amazing attention to them. It is not like correcting a paper. You are staring at a human being, a young human being. Now it is even more than ever in terms of being careful about how you engage with them. But to find the right moment to speak, not just what to say, but when to speak. That honed my listening, which was something I have already been working on in order to create the art form that I am credited for creating. I would say the two go hand in hand in that way — the ability and necessity to pay attention and to be attentive as a teacher. That is a part of any art form as well.

Hawkins: What I am learning as an educator is the role of being a mentor. On a regular basis, students are looking at us. They are looking at how we behave, how we carry ourselves and how we apply our discipline. How we put ourselves in an artistic space as well as an educational space. Part of what I am coming to a better understanding with as an educator is that my role as mentor-educator is appropriate to the students in the classroom on the individual basis, but it is also perfect for my colleagues so that they see that an educator and an artist can be an activist.

Roumain: I am reminded of the phrase a colleague, Liz Lerman, coined — risk, purpose and love. That has always had a big impact on me. My esteemed two colleagues here are absolute risk-takers and innovators and humanitarians. I think as much as we are artists, we are also social workers. ... In my own classroom teaching ... I do not use the word “teacher” or “student.” I use the word “contributors.” We are all contributors to a classroom community in a world of ideas. 

Hawkins: You can imagine the impact of what we are dealing with in a college setting. We are dealing with people that are already well on their way and we have to reach them and maybe redirect them. The important thing is, we have to get them to trust us so they don't feel like we are adversaries, that we are actually partners. Imagine the impact that we can have when these type of artist educators are relating to teenagers. Imagine what that opens up that soon in the game. And that is the point, that is the value. So by the time they come to ASU or Columbia or any university, they are receptive to ideas.

Q: How is “The Walkers” different from other works you have created or been involved in?

Daniel Roumain: This is one of the largest works I have ever done and a technical marvel. It is responsible and it is responding to the needs of the day. ... As a country, as a world culture, we are struggling with gun culture. You can say the names now, and they have become associated with gun culture. That is where we are. Anna has been thinking about these things in this work for the last three years. What a gift to go to the concert hall and be live, be witness to the real, hard suffering and successes of people not only in Chicago, but right next to us, who might not always be there.

Gordon Hawkins: As a performer, I am used to interpreting characters which are no longer in existence. Their emotions are in existence, the dramatic situations are in existence, but the characters themselves are in a historical sense. “Proximity” is very much now. From an artistic point of view, it is necessary that we start having conversations about now, not historically. ... As an artist I can no longer rely on the emotional buffer of being distant from characters in the past that I portray. It is an extraordinarily satisfying, validating, emotional feeling to be yourself there on stage. That's a wonderful place for an artist to evolve into being. 

Anna Deavere Smith: For decades now, I have been making works based on real people, based on interviews and often matters of conflict. I am used to bringing matters of reality to local places where the characters that I have interviewed and perform will be identified. This went to a whole other level because I used one community, the community Chicago CRED started by working with the shooters themselves. This was a very raw thing, and for us it was also powerful. ... It was not a one-person show as my work has been for 35 years. People like these two artists and Yuval Sharon and all those extraordinary singers have been on this journey with me. It is like a new beginning.

Lynne MacDonald