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"Rise for Freedom" Brings Parker's Struggle to Life

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 16, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2007

“This opera is destroying the Uncle Tom stereotype,” said Diane Tweedle, great-great granddaughter of John P. Parker, hero of “Rise for Freedom” by Adolphus Hailstork, given its world premiere by Cincinnati Opera Saturday night in Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center.
   Commissioned by Cincinnati Opera, “Rise for Freedom” depicts a black man fighting aggressively against slavery (in contrast to the unfairly negative connotation associated with the long-suffering Tom in Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel).
   Parker, commandingly sung and acted by bass-baritone Terry Cook, was a leading conductor on the Underground Railroad.  Son of a white father and a black mother, he learned a trade, bought his freedom, owned and operated an iron foundry in Ripley, Ohio and is credited with freeing hundreds of slaves during dark-of-night crossings from northern Kentucky into Ohio.
   Librettist David Gonzalez has lifted Parker faithfully from the pages of his autobiography, published in 1996 after languishing nearly 100 years in the Duke University archives.
    The 45-minute opera, conceived for family audiences, is about right for today’s shortened attention spans.  The music is very American-sounding, without overt references to spirituals or derivative music.  Hailstork has incorporated elements of folk song and church music – he cites the Baptist hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” in particular -- and there is stylistic kinship with Copland and Bernstein.
   Kentucky Symphony Orchestra music director James R. Cassidy presided expertly over a 17-piece KSO chamber orchestra and ensemble between stage and pit was flawless.
   The opera re-tells a harrowing episode from Parker’s life.  Widely suspected of running slaves and with a bounty on his head, Parker is dared by a customer (Sroufe, sung by tenor Jeremy Cady) to “run off” one of his slaves.  Unknown to Sroufe, Parker accepts and does so in triplicate, but his boots are accidentally left in Kentucky.  When Sroufe brings the boots to Ripley to implicate Parker, the cobbler refuses to identify them.
   The visuals, by set designer David Centers, consist of a raked, plank floor with pieces that fly or roll in and out against panels of variously lit, transparent fabric.  Stage director Sheila Ramsey of Dayton’s Dream Keeper Theater Company, accomplished the difficult task of keeping the action (12 scenes) both lightning quick and credible.
   Though destined to be “mythologized” (Gonzalez), Parker is fully three-dimensional in the opera.  The playful, assertive “You’re a Good Man, Mr. Parker” by Cook and the foundry workers in scene two gives way to Parker’s first confession of doubt in “Well done?  Well maybe I’m done.”
   Cook laid doubt to rest, however, in his ringing aria “I Made Me a Man” as Parker, ruminating alone in his foundry, re-avows his mission of deliverance.
   Parker’s domestic side is equally well portrayed.  He shares dinner with his wife Miranda and three children, engagingly sung and acted by soprano Andrea Jones-Sojola, with C.J. Hughes IV, Nekyla Hawkins and Ariss Payne.  He sends the kids to bed with a sonnet by Shakespeare and in the opera’s most touching moment, says farewell to Miranda as he sets off on yet another rescue.
   Tenor Daniel Weeks radiated strength and compassion as the Rev. John Rankin, the white abolitionist with whom Parker works, joining his congregation in an a capella, gospel-tinged expression of unanimity in the cause of freedom.
   As Sroufe, Cady delivered a galling, drunken challenge to Parker in “They’re mine.”  Tenor John Christopher Adams and soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Sroufe’s slaves (The McDowells) joined Cook in an exhilarating flatboat ride across the river.  There is even a comedic scene in which Parker asks two slave girls to strip to their bloomers to rid them of multi-layers of clothing that are hindering their escape.
   Though no one gets killed (rare for opera), there is no triumphant ending either, but a forecast of the bitter war to come as Sroufe and his men sing “This ain’t over” opposite the Ripley townspeople in the finale.
    Repeats are 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Jarson-Kaplan Theater.  Tickets are $15, $10 for children.  Call (513) 241-2742.

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Oct. 15, 2007)