The Garden of Martyrs Eric Sawyer & Harley Erdman
History of Development and Goals of Creative Team
The Garden of Martyrs springs from a true story local to Western Massachusetts, where both members of the creative team live and work. In 1805, Irish immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan were arrested for the murder of a traveler on the road from Albany to Boston. Despite their protests of innocence, the two men were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death amid a climate of nativist hysteria. A French immigrant priest, Jean Cheverus (himself a refugee), travelled from Boston to the county seat of Northampton to speak on the men’s behalf as the hour of execution approached. Though he did not succeed in saving their lives, Cheverus’ bold actions moved the public to sympathy and remorse. Today, Daley and Halligan are memorialized as “the Irish martyrs,” and a monument stands to them in Northampton near the hilltop where they were hanged.
Michael C. White’s novel The Garden of Martyrs (2004) powerfully depicts these events, imagining the relationships of the principals and their families, as well as the story’s legal and political dimensions.. White’s novel was brought to Eric Sawyer’s attention by a cast member from his previous opera, and Sawyer approached Harley Erdman, who was immediately taken with the subject matter and its potential for operatic treatment. Both composer and librettist have written previous operas based on American historical subjects: Sawyer in Our American Cousin, a poetic, evocative treatment of Lincoln’s assassination using multiple levels of theatricality, and Erdman in The Captivation of Eunice Williams, a retelling of the Deerfield raid of 1704, focusing on Native American/Puritan encounters on the early American frontier. Both love engaging with period language and culture, while viewing past events through a contemporary, 21st-century lens. Situated in the early days of the American republic, when the achievements of the Revolution were still fresh, and the young nation’s cultural traditions still inchoate, this opera offers startlingly rich musical and linguistic points of departure for creation of a new opera.
In March 2010, we solicited and received the permission of Michael C. White to use his novel as an operatic subject. By May, we had fleshed out our scenario. Our retelling will focus on the story’s final three days: the efforts of Cheverus and Finola Daley (the condemned man’s wife) to challenge the state’s legal and political establishment in order to be able to see, speak for, and ultimately save the prisoners. This establishment is embodied by Attorney General James Sullivan, an eloquent defender of the laws and virtues of the state.
Artistically, our goal is to create a moving, vivid, and relevant opera which through intense focus on a few crucial days in a handful of people opens up epically to a world of great scope. We plan to do so by mining the diverse personal histories and cultures that the story inhabits, including the characters’ roots in Ireland, France, and the West Indies, and the contrasting worlds of the Catholic and Puritan churches. As with Our American Cousin, this opera will blend arias and ensembles with through-composed music drama; the chorus will take an important role as the public voice. We hope, through this musically told story, to highlight the paradoxes and anomalies of early America, a place where egalitarianism and acceptance of newcomers stood alongside prejudice, xenophobia, and fear. These anomalies resonate as strongly today as they did in 1805, making this, we hope, an important new opera for our times.