libretto by Joan Ross Sorkin
"Mr. Carter, a North Carolina native, fills his score with evocations of blues, hymns, gospel and jazz. Much of the dialogue is set in lyrically inflected, slightly bluesy recitative, though the voices at times break into soaring flights."
— Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
“This opera is truly American, having as its root the jazz/blues style of music. Often a deep, pulsing bass is heard, a soaring clarinet or flute, a country fiddle. These characters create a mounting tension that culminates in chaos as the white townfolk gather for a lynching, and it is almost a carnival atmosphere. Afterward, those of Bess’s family, who have come too late to save him, join in a solemn prayer in which they ask forgiveness of their friend, Henry, in a gospel-based quintet that is sad beyond endurance.”
—Alan Hall, Theatre in the Triangle
Strange Fruit is adapted from Lillian Smith’s best-selling novel whose title was taken from the song made famous by Billie Holiday. Smith’s book tells the tragic story of a secret interracial love affair in Georgia, circa 1920, and was immediately controversial when published in 1944 and banned by booksellers in various locales around the country. Like the book, the opera is a powerful tale of race, passion, betrayal, murder and revenge, but above all, depicts human frailty that afflicts both sides of the racial divide. The story is set against a backdrop of swiftly changing social and economic times where African-Americans, fresh from the battlefields of World War I, were leaving the cotton fields of the Old South, some heading north, others displacing white unskilled workers in the factories and mills at home. Whites, in turn, fearing the winds of change, took refuge in their past, in their prejudice and in their God, further fanning the flames of racism and turning small backwater towns like Maxwell, the fictitious town in Strange Fruit, into potential powder kegs. The opera’s score, taking its musical vocabulary from the same period, is infused with blues, jazz and gospel, building on the traditions of popular American music.
Strange Fruit revolves around the heroine, Nonnie Anderson, a young idealistic black woman who is deeply in love with Tracy Deen, a gentle, though disaffected white man adrift in his own life. They both live with their families in Maxwell with its invisible boundary between White Town and Colored Town. The story begins when Ed, Nonnie’s older brother returns to Maxwell for a visit from Washington, D.C. to persuade his sister to return north with him to escape the hopelessness and bigotry of their hometown. Nonnie resists, knowing that leaving home means losing her beloved Tracy, the father of her unborn child. At the same time as Ed’s arrival, a white revival meeting has come to town, and Tracy’s mother, Alma, suspicious of Tracy’s behavior, enlists the traveling minister to cajole Tracy to join the church and marry his high school sweetheart Dorothy. The vulnerable Tracy, frightened by the prospect of fathering Nonnie’s child and worn down by his domineering mother, becomes susceptible to the minister’s entreaties and concocts an unholy scheme to save Nonnie the shame of bearing the child out of wedlock. When Tracy comes to Nonnie to explain his plan and end their secret affair, she refuses to accept his betrayal and professes her love for him. Meanwhile, Ed has discovered that Nonnie is carrying Tracy’s child, and as Tracy tears himself from Nonnie, Ed murders him in a fit of rage.
In a moment of weakness and dizzy with grief, Nonnie aids her sister Bess and family friend Dr. Sam Perry in their plan to help Ed escape north. However, Nonnie is plagued by her duplicity when she learns that a white mob, eager to avenge Tracy’s death, is scouring the town for Big Henry, the Deen’s loyal houseboy and Tracy’s childhood companion. At the last minute, Nonnie tries to rescue the innocent Henry, but her efforts are too late. He is savagely lynched and burned in a sickening public display that shamefully resembles the atmosphere of a small-town carnival.
After the lynching, Maxwell puts its blinders back on and returns to its routines without any attempt to examine its own inhumanity. Yet Nonnie gives birth to her baby and parades him stoically around Maxwell in a show of human dignity and the racial harmony that still could be.
Strange Fruit was premiered on June 15, 2007 at Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, NC by Long Leaf Opera; Benjamin Keaton, music director; Randall Umberger, artistic director.
Nonnie Anderson, 21-year-old African-American (soprano)
Bess Anderson, Nonnie's older sister (mezzo-soprano)
Ed Anderson, Nonnie's older brother (tenor)
Dr. Sam Perry, Anderson family friend (baritone)
Tracy Deen, 24-year-old white man (high baritone)
Alma Deen, Tracy's mother (alto)
Dorothy, Tracy's white girlfriend (soprano)
Big Henry, Deens' servant (bass)
Dessie, young maid (soprano)
Brother Dunwoodie, traveling minister (tenor)
Tom Harris, mill owner (tenor)
Clay, mill worker (bass-baritone)
R. T., mill worker (tenor)
Crazy Carl (spoken role)
Orchestra: 114(dbl. alto sax)1 211 perc pno strings