On March 28 and 29, The Broad Cove Chorale and the Unicorn Singers will present their annual spring program, this year a single long composition by one composer whose heart and imagination were seized by events that happened in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998.
Matthew Shepard’s Death and Funeral
Matthew Shepard was a University of Wyoming college student who was murdered in Wyoming in October 1998. Several days after his death, members of the Westboro Baptist Church staged a vicious anti-gay protest at his funeral.
The Genesis of Considering Matthew Shepard
These events captured the attention of the nation, the world, and Craig Hella Johnson. From almost the moment he heard about Matthew Shepard’s death and the events following it, Johnson, deeply moved, knew he wanted to do something in response. Immersed in music, especially choral music traditions, he responded by creating a passion oratorio.
Considering Matthew Shepard Described
CMS is a contemporary passion oratorio. Oratorios tell stories. Passion oratorios, such as those written by Bach, tell stories about the loss or passing of life. Typically, the stories are told in segments followed by commentary that assists listeners in making meaning of the narrative. Consequently, CMS does more than tell a deeply disturbing story, often in the difficult language associated with it; ultimately, it affirms life. It calls us to remembrance, itself an affirmation that we could do—be—better. It reminds us of the commonality of human experience, because, as the prologue says, Matthew is “an ordinary boy.” It embraces the beauty and solace of Wyoming’s vast landscape and huge sky. It finds power in community and love. It speaks with a fresh and bold voice, incorporating a variety of styles—chant, classical, country, blues, hymnody, Broadway, jazz --seamlessly woven into a unified whole. Craig Hella Johnson sets a range of poetic and soulful texts, including passages from Matt’s journal, interviews and newspaper reports.
Other Responses to Matthew Shepard’s Death and Funeral
There have been other responses to Matthew Shepard’s death, most notably The Laramie Project (a play), Leslea Newman’s October Mourning (a poetry cycle), Elton John’s “American Triangle,” the creation of the Matthew Shepard Foundation in 1998, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Matthew Shepard was in the news again in late 2019 when a plaque in his memory was dedicated at the National Cathedral in Washington, where his remains are interred.
Margo Euler’s Decision to Program Considering Matthew Shepard
In explaining her desire to perform this piece, BCC-US music director Margo Euler shared the following with the singers of the Broad Cove Chorale and the Unicorn Singers: “I knew nothing of Considering Matthew Shepard until two days before I attended a live semi-staged performance in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire [in the summer of 2019]. I listened to it before attending with no libretto and I was moved by the quality & variety of the music. I love the combination of poetry, journal entries and news reports in the libretto, and the variety of solo singers and readers, choral speaking and thrilling choral singing. Experiencing it live was the most amazing musical ninety minutes of my last two decades. Now that I’ve got the score and have studied it for hours, I’m equally energized by how perfectly it can be realized—with some judicious cuts—by our two ensembles and our many gifted soloists.”
Challenges Associated with Considering Matthew Shepard—And Reasons for Taking Them On
The challenges encountered by both singers and listeners generally relate to two areas: the facts of the story and the language used to convey them.
There are those who say Matt should never have become the face of anti-gay hate crimes; if, as some sources contend, he engaged risky behaviors, they ask, why people should sing or listen to this piece? While the precise circumstances of Matthew Shepard’s death are sometimes disputed, other aspects of the story—such as the Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay presence at his funeral—are not. Johnson’s oratorio was in part conceived to memorialize Matthew Shepard as an “ordinary boy”; it was also conceived to raise consciousness about the ongoing reality of physical and emotional violence against LGBTQ people--and to offer solace and hope to those seeking to move forward from such events.
We may not want to say or hear the words that describe what happened or that helped make it happen, but we dare not forget those words—especially the words of hate that are still sometimes said--specifically because they have such power. So we sing these words to tell a story that mustn’t ever be repeated. In singing all the words of this oratorio, we remind ourselves of the power of language to create darkness—and also to lift us out of darkness.
Audience Reaction to Considering Matthew Shepard to Date
Audiences describe this work as “brilliant,” “powerful,” “innovative,” “dazzling,” and “gripping,” more timely than ever in these days of vilification of anyone perceived as "other" by those in power. As a review in The Washington Post said, ’'Considering Matthew Shepard demonstrates music’s capacity to transform and transcend tragedy. Powerfully cathartic, it leads us from horror and grief to a higher understanding of the human condition, enabling us to endure.''
Learning More About Considering Matthew Shepard
Members of the BCC-US have been educated and inspired by the following: