Joshua Poole, Zachary Bryant and Gabriel Hernandez. Photo by Katie Simmons-Barth.
Was the 16th US President gay? Does it matter?
In the world premiere chamber opera “Yours Forever, Lincoln”, the Quarry Theater examines its subject matter in the context of four of its most intimate relationships. Lincoln’s sexuality was the subject of rumor and gossip during his lifetime, and scholarly research ever since. “Seen through a queer lens,” in the words of composer Patrick Alexander, the evidence is “very compelling” that some of Lincoln’s deeply cherished friendships with men were, at least, in part sexual in nature. This opera pursues ideas about “American revisionist history and the importance of LGBTQAI+ visibility.” But supporting a theory doesn’t seem to be the focus here. Its director, Ryan Clark, says the opera “makes no attempt to define or identify the 16th President in any specific way, but rather offers the audience a glimpse into a possible past that may better inform our future.”
…a charming and evocative evening entertainment. There is a pain and a yearning, grappling with impossibility that saturates the room.
The cast is small. Our guide is a contemporary biographer played by Joshua Poole. His spoken lines connect and contextualize the performances of tenor Gabriel Hernandez, as Lincoln, and baritone Zachary Bryant, who plays multiple roles as men in Lincoln’s life. The opera follows a chronological course, opening in 1831 as 22-year-old Lincoln has just left the nest. Arriving in New Salem, he meets 18-year-old Billy Greene and the two form a close, personal bond over grammar lessons. This section features quotes by Greene from an 1865 interview in which his physical descriptions of young Lincoln are sexually charged. Then, the action is advanced several years until 1837. The lawyer Lincoln, freshly graduated, settles in Springfield where he meets Joshua Speed. Lincoln rented his first law office and his first house, but did not have the funds to furnish them. He asks Speed, a merchant, for credit. The speed instead suggests that the two share accommodation. They do this for several years, through the eventual marriages of the two men. Speed leaves Springfield when his father dies, and Lincoln is crushed. “I am now the most miserable man in the world,” the 32-year-old says, heartbreakingly over sequences of falling, gooey glissandos. It’s Alexandre’s most inventive composition of the evening – a melancholy, brooding presentation of melodic and psychic ancestry.
From there, we jump forward 20 years to find the now-bearded Lincoln and a much younger Colonel Elmer Ellsworth who would become the first casualty of the Civil War. At this point, we notice that “Yours Forever, Lincoln” has completely ignored its subject’s political career. No reference is made to his presidency, and it looks like a deliberate and appropriate choice of direction. Even later, while enjoying the closeness with Captain David Derickson, the fact that the latter is the head of the President’s bodyguard team is barely mentioned. Their epilogue, “And That Night I Was Happy”, is presented simply as the story of two people coming together, sharing each other.
From the first scene, we notice an eclectic, but perfectly coherent collage of stylistic elements in the production. Musically, Alexandre’s compositions lean towards the modern period. There is a general sense of strong influence from early 20th century Russian work, both structurally and in its mood. The libretto by Laura Holland and Alexander is romantic. This is driven in part by the subject, but mostly by the voices of its historical sources. As an exception, the original writing is distinguished by its contemporary sensibility, which does a great service to the accessibility of the piece. The physical elements are also disparate. Wil Crowther’s excellent costumes are perfect for the era, covering a 30-year period in the Victorian era, while Christopher Crostic’s beautiful and understated ensemble suggests a 1990s Ikea kitchen backsplash.
Musically, the highlight of the performance belongs to Hernandez in “Comrades”. Bryant, in turn, shines in “A Streak of Lavender.” Both artists are good actors and wonderful singers. The score for Alexandre is performed by a tight ensemble of seven musicians, with conductor Christopher Cicconi at the helm. The four strings, the two woodwinds and the piano are sonically very well balanced in space, even if they are sometimes a bit loud in accompaniment, especially during Bryant’s singing. It is recommended to sit to the left of the house (right of the stage) to counter this. Lighting designer JR Schroyer takes full advantage of The Voxel’s expansive dimensions and extensive inventory.
The Voxel, formerly the Playhouse Theater, is home to Baltimore’s Figure 53, the company behind QLab, which is the leading Mac-based theatrical sequencing software product. Similar to the Windows-based Show Cue system, QLab has become ubiquitous in the theater community. Its developers operate The Voxel as both a product lab and a residency destination for independent theater companies in the region. It is a well-equipped space, fully accessible and very flexible.
“Yours Forever, Lincoln” is charming and evocative evening entertainment. There is a painful and fiery struggle with impossibility that saturates the piece. Even the epilogue, whose title evokes joy, is imbued with sadness behind its smiles.
Duration: 75 minutes, without intermission.
Notice: Use of Propeller Firearm.
“Yours Forever, Lincoln” runs through October 29, 2022 at Voxel, 9 West 25th Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets are available online. Customers are not required to provide proof of vaccination and wearing a mask is optional.