MHC Orchestra Presents "Dark River" Opera

a detail of the poster for "Dark River"

Women have long enjoyed success within the field of opera as singers. But to hear an opera composed by a woman—especially a woman of color—is still something of a rarity.

That will change on April 4 and 5, when the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra presents the East Coast premiere of Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story, in Mary Woolley Hall’s Chapin Auditorium, in collaboration with WomenArts.

The full-length, two-act opera will be conducted by MHC’s orchestra director Tian Hui Ng and directed by Darryl V. Jones, director of the award-winning 2009 Oakland Opera Theatre production of Dark River.

Composed by Mary D. Watkins, Dark River centers on events in the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who was one of the first African Americans to register to vote in Mississippi. In 1964, as vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Her riveting speech to the convention’s Credentials Committee was televised nationally, resulting in thousands of calls and letters in support of the Freedom Democrats. A year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and in 1968, Hamer was an official Mississippi delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

Trained in classical music at Howard University, Mary D. Watkins has written for symphony orchestras, chamber and jazz ensembles, film, theatre, and choral groups. Andrea Chinedu Nwoke and Philip Lima will sing the lead roles of Fannie Lou Hamer and Pap Hamer, accompanied by a 12-member vocal ensemble and the 60-piece Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra.

Ng says he selected this work for two reasons: “The story of Fannie Lou Hamer’s struggle for the rights of African Americans resonated with me as an Asian transplanted to the U.S. Her story speaks to anyone who has ever experienced discrimination or the feeling of being an outsider. Also, I love working with contemporary artists like Mary D. Watkins who are creating their own musical styles. Dark River is classical music that is infused with elements of jazz, gospel, and blues.

Performances are at 7:30 pm Friday, April 4, and 3 pm Saturday, April 5. Tickets are $20 (unreserved front section seating), $15 (general admission), and $10 (students and seniors). Group discounts are available; reserve tickets online, or purchase them at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Broadside Books in Northampton, or Food for Thought Books in Amherst.

• Free Tickets Offered to MHC Community: Faculty, staff, and students may claim up to two free tickets for either performance. A limited number of free tickets will be available at the Blanchard Information Desk beginning Monday, March 31, at noon and continuing as long as supplies last. 

• Read the Springfield Republican preview of Dark River.

• Read the Valley Advocate preview of Dark River.

• Read the Hampshire Gazette preview of Dark River.

• Read the Boston Intelligencer review of Dark River.

—By Bonnie Sennott