Craig Hella Johnson’s “Considering Matthew Shepard” takes us back to October 1998, when two men lured Shepard from a Wyoming bar, beat him savagely, tied him to a fence like a scarecrow and left him to die. He did, six days later. Yet over the next 90 minutes, it carries us forward to a place where none of us fears or hates people who don’t look like us, speak like us or share our views about human behavior.
The oratorio moves smoothly and restlessly through genres: classically structured numbers that suggest one of J.S. Bach’s passions, a native American-tinged lament, a country yodel, a gospel celebration. It starts with the life of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student when he died at 21, carries us through the killers’ trial — even asking us to consider what we have in common with them, however minimally — and ends with a reaffirming vision. The piece doesn’t just remember Shepard; it considers what his death might mean to us today.
Maybe that’s why the recording by Conspirare, the choral group Johnson conducts, got a Grammy nomination. It’s definitely why the CMC Chamber Singers find its Carolinas premiere a challenge.
“He wrote this for a fully professional choir,” said CMC music director Kenney Potter. “The vocal divisions sometimes go into 16 parts for a choir of 30 voices. It’s accessible music (for the audience), but there are some very angular lines for us to sing.
“Our singers are primarily classically trained, so I was curious to see how they would handle the gospel and country sections. I was excited to see how they found their other voices.”
The Minnesota-born Johnson, now an adopted son of Austin, Texas, felt a similar liberation as he wrote. The idea of a commemorative piece struck him right after the killing, though he needed 15 years to plunge into it seriously.
During that time, parents Dennis and Judy Shepard became advocates for the LGBTQ community; the play “The Laramie Project” explored the story in documentary fashion; Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode filmed the fictional “The Matthew Shepard Story.”
“I wanted to honor Matthew and his family and the work they continue to do, but it was daunting,” Johnson recalled. “It was such a well-known story. Why would anyone who wasn’t a fool take it on again? I’m so connected to Bach that I had an early vision of writing a ‘Passion for Matthew Shepard,’ but then life just happened. It took the time it took, but I felt like it had been calling out to me for a long time.
“I had a strong identification with Matthew as a blond gay man growing up and feeling like (an outsider). I grew up 60 or 70 miles from the Canadian border in a mining and drinking town, around lake country and beautiful forests. So when I went to Wyoming and listened to people tell their stories, a lot of what I heard didn’t feel foreign. And this idea of the American West is a common bond for all of us, this image of the strong, straight male, the brave pioneer.”
He captures that in the piece, which includes texts from Western writers. He doesn’t back away from the bile spilling out of Westboro Baptist Church, which became infamous for picketing Shepard’s funeral with signs that said “Matt in Hell” and “God hates fags.” He’s not afraid to be mystical: The fence that supported Shepard’s body and was eventually dismantled by mourners becomes a character in the oratorio, and texts from Middle Eastern poets add a cosmic view.
Said Potter, “As a self-proclaimed choral snob, it took me a couple of hearings to (appreciate it). I really bought in when I started to study the text while listening. It’s a groundbreaking piece with a message many communities need to hear.”
The oratorio had an inside advocate before he chose it: Master Chorale board member Mary Delk, whose niece Sarah Brauer sings with Conspirare. Brauer will come to Charlotte to oversee the Sept. 21-22 concerts, which will use Johnson’s original chamber music scoring. Projected images will set varying moods; at press time, she and Potter were considering possibilities for minimal staging and costumes.
Johnson said the piece has been performed dozens of times since its 2016 premiere. Before he turned it loose on the world, it was even more musically diverse: He cut heavy, Bruckner-like choral moments and a spoken-word section that bordered on rap. “I liked them,” he said. “But you kill your darlings when they’re not appropriate.”
He knew two things from the start: The murderers, who are serving life sentences without parole, would be present but not heard from. Even so, he said compassionately, “They are also young male victims who were told the wrong things about what it is to be a man.”
And he knew he wasn’t writing a requiem for a martyr.
“I didn’t want to create a victim story again. I wanted to take people on a difficult internal journey to face …the ‘otherizing’ that we all do in our daily lives: ‘I am other than you. I have to protect me.’ Most of us don’t commit murder, but we participate in that feeling somehow. The only way to resolve these things is to heal as a ‘we,’ not as individuals.”
‘Considering Matthew Shepard’
When and Where: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at First United Methodist Church, 501 N. Tryon St., and 4 p.m. Sept. 22 at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1000 E. Morehead St.
Tickets: $25 ($20 groups of 10 or more, $10 students at the door).
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You can find all of The Charlotte Observer’s arts season preview stories and calendars in one place: charlotteobserver.com/topics/charlotte-arts-guide. This story originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.