Program Notes for the Ojai Performance of George Lewis’s Afterword (June 9, Libbey Bowl, Ojai CA)
Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act chamber opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. The libretto, also written by Lewis, is based on the final chapter of his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music—a chapter in which he depicts a fictional meeting between past AACM members who are reunited to discuss the organization’s history and hopes for the future. The discussion draws on recordings of past meetings and interviews conducted by Lewis. The opera presents this meeting as a series of episodes in which the same three singers serve as avatars of the organization’s thoughts and beliefs. I argue in these program notes that there are two central ideas for understanding Afterword: Lewis’s critical revision of the traditional bildungsroman and his dramaturgy of the avatar.
George Lewis refers to Afterword as a “Bildungsoper,” a term derived from the “Bildungsroman”—a coming-of-age novel. Lewis’s choice of terms here is especially significant, since the bildungsroman has traditionally been associated with white European values. In the bildungsroman, as discussed by Jennifer Heinert (2009), a young hero is confronted with a series of obstacles that, once overcome, lead him—the protagonist is usually male—to embrace the values of the dominant (i.e. white European) culture. Instead, Lewis presents a revision of the traditional bildungsroman—a revision that critically engages the genre’s values, assumptions, and conventional narrative techniques. In Afterword, the development of the community is just as important as that of the individual. Like the bildungsromans of Toni Morrison (e.g., The Bluest Eye), Lewis eschews the linear and teleological trajectory of the traditional bildungsroman in favor of the juxtaposition of multiple narratives and historical moments. In doing so, Afterword offers listeners a positive model of development that does not reduce African Americans and women to the role of the other.
Particularly important for understanding Afterword is its dramaturgy of the avatar. An avatar is a virtual image that stands in for a person on the internet or in a game. The dramaturgy of the avatar refers to a type of theater in which the characters on the stage are both human beings and virtual selves. Accordingly, Afterword refrains from depicting actual historical figures in the AACM and instead employs the opera’s characters as proxies for the AACM as an organization. As Uri McMillan (2015) writes about black feminist art and performance, the avatar blurs the boundary between subject and object, allowing black female artists to perform objecthood in a way that extends agency and overcomes everyday limitations.
This aspect of the avatar is evident in Afterword’s emphasis on the body as a site of meaning that extends beyond the confines of the verbal language of the libretto. More specifically, in Sean Griffin’s remarkable staging, the singers also appear as movers, performing a sophisticated gestural language in counterpoint to the verbal text. McMillan also alludes to the “polytemporal” nature of the avatar—that is, it permits performers to transcend linear time and to perform the past in the present. One finds this practice in Lewis’s libretto and its interweaving of testimonials and transcripts removed in time. Afterword does not depict the AACM’s history in a sequential fashion, but rather as a series of historical episodes.
Finally, the concept of the avatar enables us to rethink the relationship of the media involved in opera. Just as the avatar blurs distinctions between the real and virtual worlds, opera similarly transcends the boundaries of its constituent media. As Lewis states: “Sung and spoken voices, instrumental music, and movement become heteroglossic avatars, in a process described by Toni Morrison and others as the expression of a community voice.” Ultimately, in expressing the community voice, Afterword contributes to what Guthrie Ramsey (2012) refers to as the outstanding task of “denaturaliz[ing] some of the conventions that have governed blackness’s presence in opera.”
Lewis, George. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Heinert, Jennifer Lee Jordan. Narrative Conventions and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2009.
McMillan, Uri. Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Ramsey, Guthrie. “Foreword: Singing in the Dark.” In Blackness in Opera, edited by Naomi Andre, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor, ix-x. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
(These program notes also appear on the Ojai Music Festival website.)