Mark Twain and The General Creatively Stimulates
Friday, August 24, 2012 • 5:34pm
The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey presented a studio opera, Mark Twain and the General, at Grace Church, Madison, on August 18, which was both fresh and dramatic. With music by the Orchestra’s music director and conductor, Dr. Robert W. Butts, and a libretto by Jewel Seehaus-Fisher, this highly thoughtful and stimulating work arouses the deepest thoughts about the Civil War, war in general, and Ulysses Grant’s place in history.
Let me explain: President Ulysses Grant has been condemned by many historians and moralists as a profligate, a drinker and a waster of his enormous public support after the Civil War stemming from his heroism in that conflict. But the 40-minute opera by Ms. Seehaus-Fisher and Maestro Butts raises the question of Grant’s understanding of his part in the carnage and the heroism of those who fought in the Civil War. Grant’s last great act was an autobiography of his part in these events, written as he was dying of cancer. The opera’s portrayal is profound in its exposition of Grant’s writings.
The mode for doing this created by the libretto and the music is an encounter between Mark Twain and President Grant as he is concluding his autobiography and dying in his wife Julia’s presence. The libretto and score, and Ulysses S. Grant are haunted by soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy who speak to us through the opera. The ultimate irony is that the autobiography, published after his death, is an enormous success, yielding hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties and greatly honored to this day by historians.
John Lamb is a powerful Ulysses S. Grant, dependent on whiskey to keep him going while he completes his work. Brian Jamieson is a sympathetic and resonant Mark Twain who sees the genius in the book Grant is working on and offers to publish it. Soprano Karole Lewis is a heartfelt Julia Grant, pleading with the General to stay alive. The libretto, which is sub-titled, Death Watchers: Mark Twain and the General, is profound and culminates in Julia singing in a soliloquy that she has received “nearly a dollar for every man who died in the war.” And the music by Maestro Butts is a mixture of modern, epic classical and Civil War extracts driving us to the dramatic conclusion, as Mark Twain sings, “He finished his book, and died the next week. His book was clarity, war is ugly but he told it fair. Battle by battle,” while Julia sings “A best-seller, they say.”
Mark Twain and the General was presented as part of a week of great creative music and entertainment by The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey for its annual Summer Music Festival, under Dr. Butts’ direction. The week came to a conclusion at Dolan Hall, at the College of Saint Elizabeth on Sunday, August 19 with a lecture by Dr. Butts on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, followed by that great humanistic opera, directed by Karole Lewis.
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