‘Private Norton’

Loudoun Lyric Opera debuts an original production showcasing the witty, yet fatalistic Oliver Wilcox Norton, the struggles of war and its parallelism today.

Loudoun Lyric Opera debuts an original production showcasing the witty, yet fatalistic Oliver Wilcox Norton, the struggles of war and its parallelism today. –Lynn Norusis

Loudoun Lyric Opera's Private Norton.
Photo courtesy of Loudoun Lyric Opera.

It is marked by the most ancient of poets that in peace children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. … How dreadful to hold everything at the mercy of an enemy and to receive life itself as a boon dependent on the sword!” So says David Thomas Dorch, the antagonist in Loudoun Lyric Opera’s original production of “Private Norton” and Meredith Bean McMath’s great grandfather in an essay he wrote about the horrors of war when he served at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Oliver Wilcox Norton has that same struggle.

Loudoun Lyric Opera's 'Private Norton'.
Photo courtesy Loudoun Lyric Opera.

“It is this weird juxtaposition where men really want to face death and then realize they have become death,” says McMath. “And that, if you’re talking about grand opera, that is where you go.”

McMath, an award-winning historian, director of Run Rabbit Run Productions and the librettist, had already begun her research on Norton—a man she describes as a “Forrest Gump of the Civil War” having been present at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg; a lieutenant with the 8th U.S. Colored Troops; and a bugler who worked with Dan Butterfield to create Taps, being the first to play the melody—when Pamela Butler, president and co-founder of Loudoun Lyric Opera, approached her about working on an opera. McMath immediately knew Norton’s story would be the focus.

“Everything that was prominent and important about his life is contained in this and creates the emotional arc in the opera.”

David Chavez, a composer and board member of Loudoun Lyric also joined the project. “Norton as a person, in his writings, had this deadpan sense of humor with this fatalistic streak. So he could be, at times, very humorous then very dark the next, and quickly change from one to the other,” says Chavez. “It takes audiences on a real roller coaster ride.”

Pairing fateful, sometimes witty monologue with Chavez’s music the audience delves deeper into the minds of the characters. Chavez’s use of layering existing styles and genres of music, pulls emotion from the notes.

Though set during the Civil War—timed to tie in with the Civil War Sesquicentennial—there is a modern take on the opera. “We live in probably the most politically polarized time in the nation’s history since the years leading up to the Civil War,” says Butler. “And Norton himself, after the war ended, he dedicated his life to making sure something this horrible never happened again.”

McMath does not shy away from its parallelism. She wants the audience to resonate with the characters (played by an acclaimed cast: Daniel Sherwood, Melissa Jean Chavez, Michael Forest, Natalie Barrens, to name just a few).

“It’s there, it’s absolutely there,” McMath says, “because Norton was so forthright (“And even though there are men here who fight for different reasons here then mine. And even though I suspect that God ain’t on their side … either one of us or both can catch a bullet on the fly.”). Where I’m asking for … ambiguity is that it is very easy for people to find in this country today the friend of prejudice and bigotry is ignorance. … This play allows those voices to come out.”

‘Private Norton’
Franklin Park Arts Center
April 4-13, times vary

(April 2014)