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magazine home > archives > winter 2004 > features

U of M professor John Baur is creating an opera to celebrate the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Dream Retold
by Matt Timberlake

Allen Todd as Martin Luther King Jr.

U of M professor John Baur's opera on the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. debuts nationally this October.

Dr. John Baur is well aware of the drama that surrounded the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — it is almost impossible to live in the region and not understand the power of King's story. The South was the theatre in which King's drama unfolded, from churches in Atlanta and a jail cell in Birmingham to buses in Montgomery and a balcony in Memphis. Baur, a professor of music at the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, has been capturing the essence of these events through an opera he is writing titled The Promise.

"Dr. King suffered major internal conflict," says Baur. "He wasn't comfortable being the leader of such an important movement, and he didn't consider himself to be up to the job."

Facts such as this make it important to preserve King's legacy in as many ways as possible — even through opera. Baur says it is such conflict that King was going through that has been a theme of opera since the art form began.

"It had to be done," Baur says of the project. "Especially in Memphis. I was surprised that no one had written something similar."

As the professor was initially developing the idea for an opera, a central image evolved in his mind: angry whites on one side quoting Jim Crow laws, adamantly sure they are in the right, and on the other side, an angry group of blacks citing the Constitution, just as sure of themselves.

Baur started earnestly researching King's life, and the opera began to take shape three years ago with the libretto, or text.

Brinson and Todd in The Promise
Valetta Brinson plays the role of Coretta Scott King and Allen Todd portrays Martin Luther King Jr. Both are U of M students.


King's powerful words lend themselves easily to melody. On recordings of his speeches, King often sounds as if he is singing, his booming voice hitting notes and keeping time as his passion builds.

"I wanted to educate people about Dr. King," says Baur. "I wanted to elaborate on what people already knew about him. Also, I felt the piece should be a call to action. We've come a long way, but still have far to go."

Baur used books, essays and speeches written by King as a guide, altering them to fit the music.

"It is impossible to superimpose one art form onto another," he says. "I couldn't just add music to his speeches. But it was a perfect source to adapt my text from."

Minor changes to the text were necessary to make the words to King's writings become the libretto to Baur's opera.

"King rarely used contractions in his writing and speaking," says Baur. "That can lead to awkward rhythms that don't quite fit. Some cannots became can'ts — very minor changes. Nothing to change what was being said."

King's famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," which was written from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, is a key element in The Promise. The original text is more than 20 pages long, but Baur edited it down to a page of King's words for the scene, adding his own phrases to describe the conflict between demonstrators and police that led to King's arrest.

"I couldn't use it all," Baur says. "It was a shame to lose some of those words, but the guts of what he was saying is there. I used excerpts and key elements that kept the themes."

As the libretto took shape, so did the music.

"I rarely touch a synthesizer when composing," the professor says. "I sing it as I go."

But with The Promise, Baur has been forced to use the keyboard more often.

"The words are demanding something very specific from the music, and I need more than my voice to explore all of the chords," he says.

In the early stages of composing the opera, Baur questioned whether he were the right person to write it.

Brinson and Todd in The Promise

A scene based on King's "Mountaintop Speech" and another that chronicles events during the Montgomery boycott will be performed Feb. 5-6 on the U of M campus.

"I was worried about how the black community would respond to a white man writing this opera," says Baur, who also heads the composition/theory division at the U of M.

Rev. Billy Kyles, who was with King when he was hit by a fatal bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, met with Baur and became convinced the professor was the person to write the opera. Several prominent black leaders also supported Baur in his endeavor.

Though composing the piece, Baur is not involved in the actual physical production of the opera. Noted black conductor Willie Waters is slated to conduct the work in the premiere. Also involved are U of M theatre and dance chair Bob Hetherington as director, opera program director Michael Johnson as director and U of M opera vocal coach Mark Ensley as overall musical director.

This past year, scenes from the first two acts were performed for audiences at the University, and two more scenes will be shown this February. The world premiere is set for October at the Germantown Performing Arts Center with Albert Pertalion as executive director.

The Promise is an important work very much at home in Memphis and at the U of M. With music and theatre and dance faculty joining together for the world debut, two traditionally competitive departments will yield to a higher purpose, which would suit King just fine.

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