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.”