Concert version of McClure’s ‘Promise Land: An Adirondack Folk Opera’ Friday

Northern Lights Choir and Orchestra (Photo provided — Mark Kurtz)

If you go…

What: Promise Land: Adirondack Folk Opera

When: Friday at 8 p.m.

Where: St. Bernard’s Church, 27 St Bernard St, Saranac Lake

How much: $12 in advance at Ampersound or $15 at the door

SARANAC LAKE — The fight for American democracy during the 1800s was not only won on the fields of Gettysburg or at the Appomattox Court House. Prior to all the bloodshed and North vs South, communities in the Adirondacks took a stand on equal voting rights for all men no matter the color of their skin. It’s a piece of history that sometimes goes unnoticed, and composer Glen McClure wanted to bring it into the spotlight through music.

The Northern Lights Choir and Orchestra, among other singing groups, soloists and musicians, will perform the concert version of McClure’s “Promise Land: An Adirondack Folk Opera” Friday at 8 p.m at St. Bernard’s Church. Advanced tickets are available for $12 at Ampersound, the music shop at 52 Main St, and tickets at the door cost $15.

The “concert version” means that this performance will not be acted with sets and costumes. Rather the choir and the soloist will go through the songs without the spectacle.

“This is a natural step in the evolution of a new opera,” McClure said. “Operas themselves tend to be one of the most expensive art forms, so to get to the point where we could attract a theater company that could stage the whole thing with all those expenses of the performance, you have to be proven musically. You have to have several years of audience development under your belt. We’ll be coming out of this with a really good recording and also with the first round of filming by Mountain Lake PBS.”

In the 1840s in New York, black men had the right to vote so long as they owned at least 40 acres of land. The opera follows and black husband and wife, Lyman and Anna Epps, who move their family from Utica to a farm in the Adirondacks, which was given to them by Garret Smith. Smith, among others, donated 120,000 acres to 3,000 black men.

“They decide to uproot their relatively secure life in Utica,” McClure said. “It’s a secure life without full access to American democracy. They sacrifice that security to move up to the Adirondacks to start a farm. They were not farmers before. They didn’t know how to farm. It’s already hard to run a farm in the short season we have here in the North Country, but to have folks doing it for the first time that’s also pretty daring, pretty gutsy, pretty courageous.”

Along the way, the Eppses and other black families encounter the Browns — John and Mary. John is a local legend to the Adirondacks mainly for his aggressive abolitionist style that favored a rifle over the olive branch of peace. He was hanged in 1859 after inciting a slave revolt Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, which killed seven people.

Now a widow, Mary not only provides for her 13 children but helps indoctrinate new families to the farming lifestyle in the North Country.

“One of the themes that weaves through the whole piece is this theme of the quiet resiliency of women that made things happen even though their husbands usually got credit for it,” McClure said.

Generally, when people think of opera they imagine “Carmen” or “Madame Butterfly” — pieces with hyperbolic cast members singing in a European language. Artistic director Helen Demong said “Promise Land” is definitely more of an American take on traditional opera.

“This is an original American opera, she said. “It’s all in English. It’s a unique blend of contemporary-classical music with Americana folk songs and hymns. Some of the most well known European operas are romanticized stories set to music. The unique thing about this opera is that the roots come from authentic Adirondack history.”

The Adirondacks are not only the backdrop for the opera, but they also play an integral role in the musical composition. Dr. Curt Stagger, who works in the Natural Sciences department at Paul Smith’s College, collected sediment core samples from the bottom of Wolf Lake in Newcomb over the course of three years. The samples show things such as pollen, insects, charcoal and plankton that have fallen into the lake bottom over the course of centuries. This data allowed him to reconstruct water quality and climate from the past.

“I chose Wolf Lake because it’s one of the most untouched bodies of waters in the Adirondacks,” Stagger said, “but little bits of changes suggest maybe logging affected the watershed over the years.”

Data of any sort can be converted into numbers, and numbers can be converted into music, so McClure took those numbers and put them on the tonal scale (Do-Re-Me-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do). This lead to the songs “Procession of the Pines,” which Demong describes as a “beautiful and lush baritone” piece sung by

“I think to a certain extent here in the Adirondacks our identity tends to be centered around our beautiful landscapes, Olympic athletes and tourism,” McClure said. “While all those things are true and very valuable, there’s many other parts of our history up here that have been in the shadows, respectively. So to retell the story in which the Adirondacks plants its flag in the national struggle for equality and to do it in such a unique way that actually uses the land as a vehicle to increase quality that places our local story in this in this much bigger national story.”