At first glance, the murder of Matthew Shepard might seem an unusual topic for an opera.
The musical drama, which is what the producer Opera Fusion prefers to call the piece, will have a gala preview June 17 at Fort Lauderdale's Sunshine Cathedral as part of the Wilton Manors Stonewall Festival. The sneak-peek event is also a fundraiser for a full production staging later this fall in Fort Lauderdale, according to organizers.
"We're doing about an hour of the show," executive director Birgit Djupedal Fioravante explains. "It will be semi-staged, with the orchestra behind us. And then, we're going to have an intermission, and then 40 minutes of … top opera tunes. We want to showcase exactly what Opera Fusion can do."
The work, composed by Wilton Manors musician and teacher Michael Ross, tells Shepard's story through the eyes of his best friend, Romaine Patterson. In 1998, two men beat and tortured University of Wyoming student Shepard in a homophobic hate crime, leaving him tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyo. Six days later, Shepard died from his wounds. The murder led to, a little more than 10 years later, Congress passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. (Byrd was an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year as Shepard's murder.) President Obama signed the act into law in 2009.
"I call it 'Not in My Town' because it's from one of the main scenes," Ross says. "It's when Matthew dies and there's a funeral. Fred Phelps protests at the funeral, and Romaine says this just can't happen. She and her friends … built these 7-foot angel wings and stood between Phelps' church protestors and Matthew's family, who would've had to walk by and see the awful signs held by the protestors saying, 'God hates fags' and 'Matthew's in hell.' In the opera, it's a big confrontation scene, and halfway through, the protestors sing, 'No more queers in my town.'… And then, we hear, 'No more violence in my town' from the chorus."
Ross added this is a recurring theme in the show. When Shepard comes out to his parents, he sings an aria in which he relates how he didn't fit in his hometown.
"But it could be anyone, gay like Matthew or black like James Byrd," Ross says. "It could be anyone who is bullied. People are bullied for all kinds of things: being called fat; people with glasses; they call a guy a retard. You're made to feel that you don't belong. It's kind of like the Holocaust, when people said it could never happen in our town. But if we don't do something, it could be our town. It has a lot of different connotations."
Ross has written three other complete operas (about Anne Frank, Medusa, Harriet Tubman) and is working on his fifth (Marie Antoinette at Versailles).
"He brings a lot to the table: singer, pianist, orchestrator," musical director-conductor Gordon Roberts says of Ross. "He sings in the Florida Grand Opera. That's a nice finished product."
Roberts, who lives in Hollywood, says "Not In My Town" is "tuneful, not just a modern piece with all kinds of angular harmonies and melodies that people can't relate to. It's very tuneful a la Broadway. If you call something an opera, you turn off some people who think they would never go to opera. But it's very accessible, whether you're straight, gay or whatever. It tells the story in a way that's not pedantic. It's not so heavy that it's too awful to bear. He tells the story through [Shepard's] friend."
Fioravante, who lives in Oakland Park, adds, "We're calling it a musical drama … because it skirts between musical theater and opera. It's Bernstein-esque, or like Kurt Weill. It's not grand opera. It's user-friendly."
Ross says that was the aim. "A lot of composers think they have to throw in all these complicated things … to make [opera] elitist," he says. "My whole goal was to write something that the audience is going to grab onto. I want the words to be important. I don't repeat words. It's a very through composition, and it's in English. We need to grab people with our own language."
On Sept. 24 and 25, a full production will be staged at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The performance will culminate FAU's celebration of International Peace Week 2016, a slate of lectures and events surrounding the United Nations' initiative.
The "Not in My Town" gala preview will take place Friday, June 17 at Sunshine Cathedral, 1480 SW Ninth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtime is 8 p.m. (gala dinner starts at 6 p.m.). Tickets cost $38 for the show only. VIP tickets cost $100 and include dinner, open bar, show and post-performance reception with the artists. To order, go to OperaFusion.org.