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