SANCTUARY ROAD — which began its life as an oratorio in 2018 — is now an opera premiering at North Carolina Opera on March 4,5, and 6, 2022. Brilliantly re-imagined for the stage by director Dennis Whitehead Darling, this galvanizing production features a stellar cast including Ben Taylor (as William Still), Malcolm J. Merriweather, LaToya Lain-Washington, Taylor Elaine Raven, Norman Shankle and the NC Opera Chorus and Orchestra masterfully led by conductor William Henry Curry.
Set Designer: Brian J. Ruggaber
Chorus Master - Scott MacLeod
Lighting/Projections/Video: Otto Driscoll/Jessica Drayton (Associate)
Costume Designer: Denise Schumaker
Wigs/Makeup: Martha Ruskai
Production Staff Accompanists - Matthew Stephens, Danielle Hahn
Production Manager - Linda Carlson
Stage Manager - Peter Nictakis
Sanctuary Road, based on William Still’s 1872 The Underground Railroad Records, was commissioned by the Oratorio Society of New York and premiered at Carnegie Hall on May 7, 2018, under the direction of Kent Tritle. While the audience and critical reception for the work was overwhelmingly positive that night, we immediately began to think of ways to expand the work and take the story of William Still and the Underground Railroad further; of perhaps redefining the form of the oratorio and stretching its musical and dramatic limitations into something new and unexpected. Something, we might dub, for want of a better word, an “operatorio.”
From its inception Sanctuary Road has been naturally operatic in many ways, most notably in the use of musical “leitmotifs” (recurring themes associated with extra-musical dramatic elements such as a character, emotion or idea). For instance, early on in the work, when the solo ensemble sings of the longing for freedom from slavery, they introduce what might be called the “freedom” musical motif which recurs at pivotal dramatic points in the drama, most crucially at the end.
The subject matter also demands operatic treatment. William Still, a conductor for the Underground Railroad whose invaluable record of his experiences serves as the inspiration for this text, was a man of nearly religious significance. In the tradition of Handel’s biblical oratorios and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, he guides us through these stories of courage and sacrifice in his triple role as narrator, commentator, and active participant.
The people in the stories Still encountered also emerge as real characters with very specific language and traits, not the archetypes that usually frequent oratorios. Their stories about escaping to freedom fall somewhere between the godlier notions of the oratorio and the more human emotions of opera. Why not present them as both?
Furthermore, Still’s own story demanded further dramatization. In our research, we discovered that he reunited with his estranged older brother during regular processing of his interviews with people escaping to freedom. This event seemed particularly operatic.
We are grateful to North Carolina Opera for offering us this chance to explore this new form and to Dennis Whitehead Darling for his directorial guidance. We are also thrilled that NCO’s audiences will be hearing this version of Sanctuary Road for the very first time.
Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell, February 2022