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Our American Cousin (opera)

Our American Cousin (opera)

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Our American Cousin is an opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

 in three acts by the American composer Eric Sawyer
Eric W. Sawyer
Eric W. Sawyer or Eric Sawyer is an American composer, pianist and associate professor of music at Amherst College. He has studied as an undergraduate at Harvard College, where he was selected as a Harvard Junior Fellow...

 with libretto by John Shoptaw. The main plot depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from the standpoint of the actors presenting the play of the same name
Our American Cousin
Our American Cousin is an 1858 play in three acts by English playwright Tom Taylor. The play is a farce whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish but honest American, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate...

 at Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre is a historic theater in Washington, D.C., used for various stage performances beginning in the 1860s. It is also the site of the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865...

 in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

 on April 14, 1865. It aims to offer something new in the realm of American contemporary opera, an American myth told in an unfamiliar way, with both poetic and musical language drawing from the past but refracted through the present.

The opera's narrative is the collaborative invention of Shoptaw and Sawyer, freely imagined within the framework of the documented historical event and adapted plot of the original comedy. Its three acts comprise the backstage events prior to the play, the play itself, and the rupture of the stage drama by the assassination and its aftermath.

Performance history

The world premiere of the fully staged opera occurred on June 20, 2008 in Northampton, Massachusetts
Northampton, Massachusetts
The city of Northampton is the county seat of Hampshire County, Massachusetts, United States. As of the 2010 census, the population of Northampton's central neighborhoods, was 28,549...

 at the Academy of Music Theater, the city's 800-seat 1892 opera house, one of the oldest municipally owned theaters in the nation and not unlike Ford's Theatre. The performance featured the Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is a full professional orchestra in Boston, Massachusetts, and is widely recognized as the premiere orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording new music of the 20th and 21st centuries...

 conducted by Gil Rose. Principal performers included Janna Baty as Laura Keene
Laura Keene
Laura Keene was a British-born American stage actress and manager. In her twenty-year career, she became known as the first powerful female manager in New York.-Early life:...

, Drew Poling as Ned Emerson, Alan Schneider as Harry Hawk, Aaron Engebreth as Jack Matthews, and Tom O'Toole as John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. Booth was a member of the prominent 19th century Booth theatrical family from Maryland and, by the 1860s, was a well-known actor...

. Stage direction was by Carole Charnow, general director of Opera Boston
Opera Boston
Opera Boston is an opera company in Boston, Massachusetts. It specializes in innovative repertoire and rarely heard works, along with opera education and outreach programs designed to bring opera education to children, in schools and after-school programs throughout the Boston area.Its home base is...


The opera had been previously performed in a concert version on March 31, 2007 at Amherst College
Amherst College
Amherst College is a private liberal arts college located in Amherst, Massachusetts, United States. Amherst is an exclusively undergraduate four-year institution and enrolled 1,744 students in the fall of 2009...

 in Amherst, Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts
Amherst is a town in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, United States in the Connecticut River valley. As of the 2010 census, the population was 37,819, making it the largest community in Hampshire County . The town is home to Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts...

, with the same principals as above along with the Amherst College Concert Choir.


A recording of the opera was released in 2008 on the BMOP/Sound label by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. In a review of the CD Robert Carl noted "...this is one of the freshest, most ambitious new American operas I've heard in ages. Instead of taking up once again some cinematic or literary retread, it actually dares to use original material. And it also dares to take up historical events and musical tropes without succumbing to mere costume drama… I appreciate, admire, and enjoy Sawyer's voice. And I hope this is only the first of Shoptaw's librettos. As a first collaboration, the result is stunning."


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 20 June 2008
Conductor: Gil Rose
Laura Keene (Mary Dundreary) mezzo-soprano
A mezzo-soprano is a type of classical female singing voice whose range lies between the soprano and the contralto singing voices, usually extending from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above...

Janna Baty
Harry Hawk (Asa Dundreary) tenor
The tenor is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, to the A above middle C in choral music, and up to high C in solo work. The low extreme for tenors is roughly B2...

Alan Schneider
Jack Matthews (John Coyle) baritone
Baritone is a type of male singing voice that lies between the bass and tenor voices. It is the most common male voice. Originally from the Greek , meaning deep sounding, music for this voice is typically written in the range from the second F below middle C to the F above middle C Baritone (or...

Aaron Engebreth
Ned Emerson (Lord Dundreary) baritone Drew Poling
President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

baritone Donald Wilkinson
Mary Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Ann Lincoln was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and was First Lady of the United States from 1861 to 1865.-Life before the White House:...

A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...

Angela Gooch
John Wilkes Booth baritone Tom O'Toole
Lady Mountchessington mezzo-soprano Janice Edwards
Gussie Mountchessington soprano Hillarie O'Toole
Doctor Leale baritone Daniel Kamalic
Director Carole Charnow
Costume designer Nancy Leary
Scenic and lighting designer Christopher Ostrom
Chorus master Mallorie Chernin


Act I

As the cast of the comic play "Our American Cousin" assembles backstage, aging actor Ned Emerson spins out a comparison of theater to war, while leading man Harry Hawk broods over a letter informing him of the death of a friend he hired to be his substitute in battle. Character villain Jack Matthews banters with John Wilkes Booth, who appears backstage to present him with a sealed letter announcing news "that has not come to pass." Knowing Booth has concocted violent and subversive scenes in the past, an alarmed Matthews hides the letter in his pocket. As they arrive, groups of theatergoers give voice to their thoughts, while backstage a last-minute rehearsal erupts into a scuffle just as the company manager/leading lady Laura Keene enters to deliver a stern admonishment to the actors. At the sound of "Hail to the Chief
Hail to the Chief
"Hail to the Chief" is a march primarily associated with the President of the United States. Its playing accompanies the appearance of the President at many public appearances. For major official occasions, the United States Marine Band and other military ensembles generally are the performers, so...

" Keene walks onstage to welcome Abraham and Mary Lincoln, exhorting the audience to put war behind them and forget their cares for the evening of entertainment.

Act II

As the theater curtain rises on an English country estate, Mary Dundreary (Laura Keene) is helping her forgetful father, Lord Dundreary (Ned Emerson), to locate a misplaced letter, which turns out to be from a backwoods American cousin, Asa Dundreary (Harry Hawk), announcing his imminent visit to Dundreary Manor to settle some "ancient business." Overhearing news of the visit of a presumably wealthy American, Lady Mountchessington schemes with her daughter Gussy to secure Asa's hand in marriage. Arriving as if on cue, Asa confounds the pair with a coarse tail of "herding possum" on the frontier. Abraham Lincoln laughs heartily at the frontiersman's mannerisms, so comically resonant with his own public persona. The villainous Solicitor Coyle (Jack Matthews) informs Lord Dundreary that he now holds the deed to the family estate, and that only his daughter's hand in marriage will forestall ruin. As the family assembles for dinner, Asa is smitten with Mary Dundreary and instantly detects Coyle's plans. The rivals jockey for seats at a lavish dinner table as underfed soldiers from the theater audience look on with indignation.


As Mary Dundreary leads an adoring Asa on a tour of her modern dairy, Asa spins a yarn of a deathbed bequest by his stepfather of sufficient money to save the Dundreary estate. Mary rushes off to tell her father of their salvation. Conversing quietly in their box, Abraham and Mary Lincoln look to their future after the presidency, while Booth, outside, rehearses for the assassination. Asa encounters the still eager Mountchessingtons, and having sacrificed his fortune to save the estate, declares himself penniless. As they escape from Asa's comic scorns, a shot is heard. Booth leaps from the presidential box and wields a knife at the paralyzed Hawk before fleeing. While the actors attempt to continue the play, Laura Keene tries to calm the crowd, which instead erupts calling for mercy and justice. Within the presidential box, Mary prepares for a life of mourning while a surgeon tends hopelessly to Lincoln. Laura Keene, seeing the President lying on the bare floor, takes his head on her lap and bathes it. Matthews remembers Booth's letter in his pocket, and he and Hawk set fire to it just as the police arrive to arrest them for questioning. While Laura Keene is left to wander the stage wondering the value of her life in the theater, a shadowy figure approaches to ask her when the play will resume. Recognizing Lincoln in the figure Keene exclaims "Don't you really know what happened?" Upon Lincoln's silence, the audience chorus give a cryptic reply in the form of a recitation of the names of Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...