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Opera about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer takes center stage

Opera about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer takes center stage

The one-act drama is a partnership between the FIU School of Music and Santa Fe Opera and tells the story of a former sharecropper who rose to national prominence at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

February 23, 2021 at 3:15pm

“Don’t give up. Freedom is not free. Keep fighting. Keep fighting.”
—Fannie Lou Hamer

A woman of humble origins, Fannie Lou Hamer spoke truth to power and dedicated her life to the civil rights movement in Mississippi. In 1962, at the age of 44, Hamer tried to register to vote, and the next day she was fired from her job. She went on to become a key organizer and, by the end of Freedom Summer in 1964, she rose to national prominence after giving shocking testimony at the Democratic National Convention as a representative of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her historic speech attracted the attention of millions and would eventually help secure the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The tireless efforts of Hamer continue to be an inspiration and a reminder to us all about the importance of standing up and making your voice heard.

Only this time, through the art form of opera.

FIU's Music Opera Workshop, symphony orchestra and choirs will together perform selections from a new one-act opera based upon the life of Hamer called “Is This America?” The full work, "This Little Light of Mine," was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, as part of the Opera for All Voices program.

Opera for All Voices was born out of the need for new works that can reach broad-ranging audiences through resonant subject material and manageable budgets. The project also addresses the need to bring new audiences to opera by commissioning works that speak to all voices, are designed with modern attention spans in mind and break down pre-conceived notions about opera.

"The performance of this opera is timely,” explains Robert B. Dundas, director of the FIU Opera Theater. “Repeatedly, we have heard others quoting Fannie Lou Hamer's plea, 'Is This America?' They were tearfully echoed by a black policeman, beaten and verbally abused, during the Capitol Hill riots. They resounded again during the impeachment hearings. Over and over, all of us are still asking the same question that Mrs. Hamer confronted the nation with so many years ago."  

“Is This America?” is one of several works through which opera companies, organizations and educational institutions have begun exploring questions of race, personal history, social justice and civil rights. And now, it’s coming to FIU and South Florida audiences as an orchestral world premiere.

“I am thrilled about this collaboration with the Santa Fe Opera. The SFO has proven itself as a leader nationally in not only world-class performances, but also as an organization with word-class education and engagement. It is an honor to be partnering with them and an enormous opportunity for our students. The work on this has been inspiring to the professors and students alike as these themes are uniquely American, and are very relevant today,” explains Javier Jose Mendoza, conductor of FIU Symphony Orchestra.

The cast is performed entirely by FIU music students who have participated in masterclasses and panel discussions with members of the Santa Fe Opera.

“We are incredibly pleased to continue to build and nuture our partnerships with prestigious organizations, both nationally and globally,” says FIU School of Music Director Karen S. Fuller Veloz. “These collaborations are about enhancing learning, real-life experiences for our students. The Santa Fe Opera is renowned worldwide and we are incredibly proud to be working with them.”

Vocal performance major Johna Denis plays the role of June E. Johnsonalso a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Partywho had a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. In the performance, June narrates the story.

“This is so relevant to the time we’re living in, and there aren’t many operas that discuss and talk about these sorts of things," Denis says. "I didn’t even know who Fannie Lou Hamer was.”

Diane Solomon-Glover, who wrote the libretto, has long served humanitarian and social efforts. In 2001, she created the role of Winnie Mandela in the premiere of American composer Chandler Carter's "No Easy Walk to Freedom."

Of Hamer, Solomon-Glover says, “She was threatened and shot at and run out of town, and when that didn’t work, she was jailed and beaten so badly that she never fully recovered from it, but she remained undeterred… It is very important for Americans to be acquainted with, and to accept, the totality of American History.”

Adds Carter, “She should be an inspiration to all Americans because of the sacrifices she made, nearly giving up her life, in order to register to vote to make her life better and better for her community. I wish everybody knew her story, and this is just our contribution to making sure everyone knows who Fannie Lou Hammer is.”

At 8 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 27, "Is This America?" will be presented as a free livestream from the North Beach Bandshell.

In addition to the performance, a panel discussion will be made available with librettist Diana Solomon-Glover, Santa Fe Opera’s Beth Greenberg, composer Chandler Composer, FIU journalism professor and activist Karla Kennedy and moderator Karen S. Fuller Veloz about the opera and the importance of hearing collective voices. The panelists will be joined by special guest and activist LaToya Ratlieff, great-niece of Hamer.

Reservations and more information can be found on the School of Music website here.