Production Diary part 2

July 16

At today’s we got a look at Emily Dunn’s approach to the costumes. She’s going for earth colors for the chorus, simple dresses and breeches with hats providing individuality, all handmade. The effect will be slightly ghostly and abstract, and should be wonderfully in sync with the scenery. These will all be handmade, while the principals’ costumes will be rentals. (Vernon says a Scarpia costume of the right color might do for him as Attorney General, a startling thought!) We’re starting to spend money in earnest, but I feel very secure that the planning and ingenuity of our team will keep us on track.

July 23

The past few days have been all about performance materials. The final version of the 648 page orchestral score, enlarged for readability, went in the mail to Kevin Rhodes today. I had a lovely home visit yesterday with my clarinet section, Michael and Lynn Sussman, who asked for an advance look at the parts. We discussed fingerings for tremolos and made a few adjustments, but to my relief they pronounced their parts clear and unproblematic. In the next couple days string parts need to go to principal players, who will mark in bowings and return them for photocopy and distribution.


July 24

Another great production meeting. A more detailed set model was unveiled, introducing startling colors dynamic transitions between scenes. Our six student interns contributed wonderful work both here and in helping Emily Dunn develop a palette of colors and textures for the chorus costumes. They will express the range of prosperity and social standing of 30 Northampton citizens, with bonnets and hats giving the clearest status markings.

August 4

One planning oddity is the need to worry about where the set will go post-performance even before it is built. Even having it chopped up and hauled away takes forethought, and we don’t want that to be the fate of this wonderful set. A barn in New Hampshire is being cleared to receive it. But – a new wrinkle – it might be able to go directly to the next performance site (Sept. 2014). Too soon to say too much, but more to come.


Production Diary

June 28

We have wonderful scenery in the works – pictures to come. Ed Check showed us his model today, a fantasy of angels’ wings and tombstones, flying in and recombining. We have the rare advantage that our Technical Director knows the score, as Alan Schneider is both singing Daley and building the set.

July 1

July 1, and the production schedule comes clearly into view. A month from now, Ed Check’s set and Emily Dunn’s costumes will be well into construction, with the help of a team of theater students courtesy of the Five Colleges. Staging takes place August 18-31 on a stage at Amherst College the size of the Academy’s, with Jerry Noble providing the Steinway orchestra and Kevin Rhodes and Vernon Hartman occupying the podium and director’s chair. An unusual feature of the schedule is having two weeks of down time before production week at the Academy starting September 14. There are so many teachers among us (as well as students in the chorus) that we need a fighting chance to launch the school year. This will work because after three workshops most everyone already knows the piece pretty well. 9/14 is also the first rehearsal with orchestra, six days before the premiere. Par for the course, in fact luxurious!

July 3

Photo from Ed Check’s set model: Daley and Halligan in their jail cell in Northampton

The jail cell in Northampton confining Daley and Halligan

July 5

Another impending deadline making itself felt is for performance parts. The first requests from musicians to see their parts just came in – quite wonderful to receive, actually. But the reply is that they’re not ready just yet. Despite the wonders of music software, separating 648 pages of orchestra score into parts for each musician is a big task. Cues must be added to spare musicians the stress of having to count sixty bars of rest. Stuff must be cleaned up and carefully proofread against typos that will sink a rehearsal. Peter Jody, a wonderful Amherst student, is helping out with the second. Once the parts are printed, the opera is truly done – one can’t go changing the score anymore.

July 12

First big production meeting yesterday at the Academy. How many hours and union hands needed to hang and focus lights, and install set? Thanks to our very well prepared design/tech team and clear guidance from union rep Emily Brownlow, we’re a big step closer to knowing. We’ll be racing against the clock from when we start carrying things in on Sat. 9/14 till when the orchestra shows up at 1 p.m. the next day. Another interesting discussion was the division of labor for running the show. As the final scene opens the gallows comes together from three directions, with wooden poles coming down from the ceiling to fit snugly in platform slots. This is a union job. In general, though, the set has a simplicity that will allow chorus members and student assistants to do the moving – a boon to the budget.the next day. Another interesting discussion was the division of labor for running the show. As the final scene opens the gallows comes together from three directions, with wooden poles coming down from the ceiling to fit snugly in platform slots. This is a union job. In general, though, the set has a simplicity that will allow chorus members and student assistants to do the moving – a boon to the budget.


Australian soprano Kari Lyon (Bridie) wins prize in New York

Kari Lyon (Bridie)

Australian soprano Kari Lyon is the recipient of the 2012 Concert Artist Prize in the Metropolitan International Music Festival in New York. In June, she returns to the US to play Bridie in workshops of Eric Sawyer’s opera The Garden of Martyrs (world premiere 2013), joining a distinguished cast, including Amy Johnson, directed by Vernon Hartman.
She has performed throughout Australia, Italy, the UK, and the United States. Her operatic roles include Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi (Castello Brancaleoni in Piobbico), La Prima Sorella Cercatrice in Suor Angelica (Teatro Bramante in Urbania), as well as Pamina and First Lady in Die Zauberflote, Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Amor in Orfeo ed Euridice, Gianetta in L’Elisir D’Amore, and Millie in Denise Page Caraher’s delightful children’s opera Figatroll.

Act III Workshop

act 3 workshop









Act III got a spirited launch on Sunday night, with a large and responsive audience and many good comments in the talkback. Audio and video to come! Pictured: John Salvi, William Hite, Alan Schneider, as well as chorus members Beccie Magnus, Jeremy Koo, and Sam Ostrowski.

Second Act of Music Professor’s Opera Receives Rave Reviews

Hampshire Gazette Previews Opera

A tale of operatic proportions

New work based on seminal event in local history


It was an event that transfixed the region more than 200 years ago, one that would eventually prompt considerable collective soul-searching and then a proclamation from former Gov. Michael Dukakis exonerating two men – Dominic Daley and James Halligan – 178 years after their deaths.

Now the story of the two Irish immigrants, hanged in Northampton in 1806 for a crime they likely didn’t commit, will be told in a new fashion: via an opera.

Eric Sawyer, a music professor and composer at Amherst College, and Harley Erdman, a playwright and theater professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have joined forces to produce an operatic version of the 2004 historical novel “The Garden of Martyrs.” The opera, still in the working stages, will explore the final days of Daley and Halligan, convicted of murdering a man along a highway in Wilbraham, and the role that a French refugee priest, Father Jean Cheverus, plays in defending them in the face of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

The opera’s second act will be staged on June 12 at Amherst College as part of a free performance workshop. After the performance, which begins at 5 p.m. at Buckley Recital Hall, Sawyer, Erdman and conductor Kevin Rhodes will lead a discussion of the work with the audience.

A second public staging of Act II will take place on June 17 at 7 p.m. in the Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield. The opera’s first act was performed publicly in January in Amherst.

‘Operatic qualities’

Separately, Erdman and Sawyer have both co-authored other operas. Erdman was the librettist for “The Captivation of Eunice Williams,” a 2004 interpretation of the story of a young white girl captured during the Deerfield Massacre of 1704 who eventually married a Native American. The opera, staged by Old Deerfield Productions, was performed locally and in other locations, including Washington, D.C.

Sawyer, meantime, composed the music for “Our American Cousin,” a 2008 production at The Academy of Music in Northampton that looked at Abraham Lincoln’s last night through the eyes of the actors and audience members at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater during an 1865 performance of a popular play of the same name.

Sawyer and Erdman’s collaboration today traces its origins to last April, when Sawyer read “The Garden of Martyrs,” by Connecticut novelist Michael C. White, and was struck by what he calls the book’s “operatic qualities.”

“It has a dramatic scope and theme, but it also has a basic story line – it’s not cluttered with characters,” said Sawyer during a recent interview in his Amherst College office. “And of course it’s a story that is very familiar to many people in this area.”

Workshop Preview of Act I January 9th

Free preview of new opera on Pioneer Valley’s infamous Daley, Halligan case

Veterans of Metropolitan Opera, Boston Symphony to perform

Amherst, Mass. A free workshop performance of The Garden of Martyrs, a new opera on the 19th century case of Irish immigrants executed in Northampton for a murder they likely did not commit, will take place on Sunday, January 9 at 5:00 p.m. in Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. The semi-staged performance of the opera’s first act will be followed by a conversation with librettist Harley Erdman and composer Eric Sawyer, joined onstage by Michael C. White, on whose novel the opera is based.

The opera views the 1806 case of Dominic Daley and James Halligan through the eyes of the French refugee priest of Boston, Jean Cheverus, whose own haunted past led him to come to their aid.

Sawyer, a music professor at Amherst College; and Erdman, a theater professor at UMass Amherst, have each seen recent area performances of original operas, Sawyer as composer of Our American Cousin and Erdman as librettist of The Captivation of Eunice Williams.  This is their first collaboration.

The cast includes vocalists of international reputation. Baritone and director Vernon Hartman has appeared in dozens of roles at the Metropolitan Opera over two decades, and has overseen opera productions nationally and internationally.  Tenor William Hite has sung with the Boston Symphony, the Dresdner Philharmonie, and the American Symphony Orchestra, and his discography includes over 35 recordings.  Soprano Amy Johnson has been featured in principal roles with companies across America, including New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera.   Mezzo-soprano Marjorie Melnick spent twelve years singing opera, oratorio, and recitals in Europe.

Daley and Halligan were exonerated in 1984 by a proclamation of Governor Michael Dukakis.  A commemoration of the bicentennial of their execution took place in Northampton in 2006.

First Opera Preview January 9, 2011

Our baby arrived last night, and 150+ were on hand to witness the birth, including novelist Michael C. White, who gave his public blessing. We had wonderful feedback in the post-discussion and should be able to post some video shortly. Thanks to all that came!