Kirke Mechem


Kirke Mechem small image

john brown

“In Lyric Opera’s 50 year history, there have never been such sustained standing ovations.”
— Russell Patterson, co-founder of LOKC

John Brown

James Maddalena as Brown; Donnie Ray Albert as Douglass

Opera in Three Acts
Duration: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Libretto in English by the composer
Singers: 2 Sop, Mz, 3 Ten, Bar, B-Bar, Bass; chorus
Orchestra: 3332 4331 timp. 2 perc. harp strings
Premiere: May 3, 2008 Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Ward Holmquist, conductor; Kristine McIntyre, director
Publisher: G. Schirmer, New York

SYNOPSIS: The opera concerns the events surrounding the abortive attempt by John Brown, a passionate abolitionist, to end American slavery. His friend Frederick Douglass, the charismatic black leader, plays a prominent role. There is a love story at the heart of the opera. One of Brown’s sons was engaged to a girl from a Quaker family; she wants him to leave Kansas, a battleground for the struggle against slavery. She is devastated by her brother’s murder by Southern invaders, our national conflict mirrored in her personal torment. Brown’s execution at Harpers Ferry was a national sensation, the catalyst that accelerated the explosion of Civil War. As the opera closes, Douglass proclaims, “You cannot bury him! As long as men love freedom, John Brown will never die.”

While writing his libretto, Mechem consulted with historian Stephen Oates, then the foremost authority on Brown. Oates wrote of the finished text: “The painstaking efforts to be historically accurate, as well as artistically creative, should stand as a model. It captures perfectly the conflict and tragedy at the heart of the John Brown story. I was deeply moved.”


“. . . the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of . . . a natural from start to finish . . . could easily become an iconic American classic.”

— Kansas City Star

"...marvelous both in sound and emotion... tonal and lyric, but never trite. 'I'm Free' and 'Stoke The Fire' are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote.”

— Opera Today

“Strikingly contemporary…with its strong score and story, the opera is likely to become a standard in the operatic repertoire. . . . a powerful opera about the terrible stakes in the nation’s struggle over slavery. Profound and haunting, it may be as close to an American epic as anything yet written.”

— National Catholic Reporter

“(Four stars) Mechem’s work is breathtaking, aided by the rich performances of Maddalena and Albert, [who] nearly stopped the production with his rich delivery of this moving work.”

 — A&

"We have just seen the premiere of what may well be the great American opera. . . What happens in Act II constitutes one of the most powerfully moving scenes in all opera . . . [Brown’s] hubris, his martyrdom, and his apotheosis bring this character and events from the historical into the pantheon of the great tragic figures in theatre."

— Prof. Theodore Johnson, Kansas University

John Brown

James Maddalena as Brown; Donnie Ray Albert as Douglass


For technical reasons, some excerpts from the premiere production could not be used.

1 Orchestral Prelude

Santa Cruz Symphony, Larry Granger, conductor

2 Brown confronts Lt. Jeb Stuart, in Kansas to protect the bogus pro-slavery government. “You speak with the arrogant tone. . .”

James Maddalena, baritone, Lyric Opera Kansas City

3 Martha’s brother has been killed by the Invaders. When the territorial Governor tells her that “Kansas Law” does not permit such action, she sings this aria.

Deborah Voigt, soprano

4 “When I was a boy.” Brown’s aria is sung to a slave who asks why he, alone among his race, is willing to die to free slaves.

David Okerlund, baritone

5 In 1848 Brown helped a slave family to escape. The husband and chorus sing “Dan-u-el,” a spirtual that combines an old text with new words and music.

Robert Honeysucker, Detroit Symphony

6 Douglass sings “The songs of the slave are the sorrows of his heart.”

Wayne Shepperd, baritone, Santa Cruz Symphony

7 “Dear Husband.” One of Brown’s men at Harpers Ferry was a freed slave who hoped to free his wife and children, still in slavery a few miles away. His wife, seen as his vision, sings her actual letter. The husband was killed in the raid.

Helen Dilworth, soprano; San Francisco Choral Society

8 Brown’s family and friends ask Douglass for the famous speech he made in England. The words are drawn from his speeches and autobiography spanning many years.

Donnie Ray Albert, Lyric Opera Kansas City

It leads directly into . . .

9 Declaration. “What do we want of America?” Douglass asks and he is joined by the chorus in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence.

Robert Honeysucker, Detroit Symphony


Why John Brown?

“Why write an opera about John Brown? Wasn’t he some kind of violent nut?” This is a question I often hear from people who know little about United States history and less about opera.

John Brown was like an Old Testament prophet reincarnated as the quintessential American of the nineteenth century, a larger-than-life figure ideal for opera. Operas are not about “nice guys.” They are about charismatic men and women whose passions and actions invite controversy and conflict.

Since 1776 America has had special meaning for the rest of the world. Despite its flaws it has become a symbol of equality and justice for all races and religions. From the beginning, however, there was a cancer within — slavery — the exact opposite of everything the country stood for. Brown hated it with a passion. His story is the battle for survival of the American vision; it remains an inspiration both to other peoples and to those Americans who still must struggle for simple justice.

Brown’s Old Testament message was this: you cannot have both injustice and peace. This proved to be an accurate prophecy: it took a national cataclysm to end slavery, and the world is still fighting over racial issues.

A malicious myth about John Brown persists in some quarters: that he was insane or at the very least a wild fanatic. Emerson and Thoreau didn’t think so, and they knew him well. So did Frederick Douglass, who saw in Brown “a truly great soul.” Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, and later, Theodore Roosevelt, W. E. B. DuBois and Carl Sandburg — all wrote tributes to Brown.

There are those who say that John Brown was a terrorist. Terrorists kill innocent civilians massively and randomly. The five men executed by Brown’s followers at Pottawatomie were carefully selected. They were participants in the pro-slavery terror in Kansas which had already resulted in the murder of six free-state men and in the sacking of Lawrence; they had declared war to the death on the Browns and other abolitionists. The killing at Pottawatomie was a terrible deed, but a just reprisal, a “retaliatory blow,” in Brown’s biblical view. And from a historical perspective, we may ask whether Americans have not always supported fighting back against terror and oppression. It always amazes me to hear John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry denounced by Americans who glorify the colonial farmers who killed British soldiers on their way back from Concord. As if “taxation without representation” was in any way commensurate with slavery, “one hour of which,” in Jefferson’s words, “is fraught with more misery than ages of that which [the colonials] rose in rebellion to oppose.”

I have tried in my libretto to be historically accurate. It is absolutely essential to see Brown in the context of his time in order to understand the man, and to understand the Civil War. I grew up in Kansas (my father was the state historian) and the truth of this story is important to me. I spent a year doing research, consulting with the foremost authority on Brown, the prize-winning historian Stephen B. Oates, before, during and after writing the libretto. Oates has “sought to show why Brown performed his controversial deeds rather than to damn or praise him.” I follow his example and hope that the addition of music will bring this drama to life in a new and cathartic way. For all my concern with history and drama, I am acutely aware that an opera lives or dies by the quality of its music. Here I gladly give up words and turn over the consideration of that enigmatic and timeless old man to the hearts and minds of my listeners.
              — K. M.