Requiem for Frankie Silver
Bethel University’s Benson Great Hall, November 5 @ 7:30 pm
“This would make a fantastic opera.”
That was Craig Fields’ first thought when he read Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, Ballad of Frankie Silver, in 1999. The book was based on the true story of an Appalachian teenager who was wrongly accused of murdering her husband in 1833.
Fields, the musical director of MacPhail Center for Music’s premier adult vocal ensemble, Sonomento, has longed to bring Frankie Silver’s story to the stage ever since. In sharing his vision, Sonomento member and MacPhail benefactor, Kirk Hoaglund, commissioned the work for the choir and is producing the show as the initial major undertaking of their new company, Orpheus Music Project. And next month, the project comes to fruition with Requiem for Frankie Silver, a 90-minute musical program at Bethel University’s Benson Great Hall (November 5, 7:30 pm). The show isn’t a full opera; but in many ways, it’s much more than that.
The musical performance will convey the story’s setting, the factual account, the conflicting points of view, and the enormous emotional impact of this societal injustice. Through an all-new musical composition (libretto by Fields and music by composer Craig Carnahan), Frankie Silver’s predicament will unfold in a range of musical styles—including several operatic arias but also ballads, folk songs, and traditional hymns. And the tale itself will be imparted by a storyteller, 12 soloists, 60 MacPhail Sonomento choristers, and a full orchestra.
Fields readily admits that this unique project won’t fit into a tidy musical category. “I’ve been in the opera and music business all my life,” he says. “I have never seen a work like this at all.”
Frankie Silver was just 18 years old when she tried to prevent her abusive husband from murdering their newborn—and ended up inadvertently killing him. The murder trial that followed was riddled with injustice and intolerant thinking. (She was not allowed to take the stand in her own defense.) She became North Carolina’s first woman to be hanged for a crime; Her body then dumped on the side of the road.
It’s a formidable role, but Fields didn’t have to look far for the perfect person to fill it. Soprano Lauren Senden comes straight out of the MacPhail family; she’s a graduate of the Prelude: Singer/Actor Lab program.
“The whole project was incubated at MacPhail,” Fields says. “The first time I heard Lauren’s voice, I knew she was our Frankie. She’s 22 years old, so very close to Frankie’s age, but she’s an incredibly old soul. She immediately understood the character and was able to channel this 18-year-old girl who was unjustly hanged.”
Senden, a senior at the Baldwin Wallace University Music Theater Program, has already received several national awards for singing, acting, and dancing. She recently performed the role of Maria in the university’s production of The Sound of Music, gaining valuable professional experience singing with the Akron Symphony Orchestra. But, she says, Requiem for Frankie Silver gave her a whole new set of “firsts.”
“I’d never stood next to such phenomenal opera singers and been able to share what I have to share alongside all these inspiring people,” she says. “I just kept trying to take it all in like a sponge. To listen and learn from them and take copious notes!”
To Senden, every part of this project has been a blessing—even a long, Covid-related pause in production. “It gave me time to dive into the story more and understand the perspective and style of singing that this show requires. Here at school, I’m doing a lot of belting and musical theater work, and some operatic singing. This production lets me flex both of those muscles and skills, but it’s also a bit more grounded.”
Audiences will see a glimpse of Sendens’ “old soul” when she must enact some very difficult moments—like pantomiming her own hanging. According to Fields, she pulls it off so flawlessly that “it’s disturbingly shocking.”
“When you’re building a brand-new work, which I love, you have some liberty to make a few discoveries and have a dialogue with the musical director,” Senden says. “Craig and I talked about how to tell the story in the best way. What is realistic? What does a true hanging look like? How does a body respond to having no air?”
She researched the topic and probably learned more than anyone would want to know on the subject: “Different types of hanging are more humane than others,” she says. “People hanged at 10 or 15 feet will die faster than at around five feet, which is how Frankie was hanged. A cart was pulled out from beneath her.”
The profound indignity and raw emotion of Frankie’s situation guided Fields and Carnahan as they set the musical tone of each scene. For example, during a women’s prayer group meeting, attendees sympathetic to Frankie sing a haunting rendition of “Rock of Ages.” The song, which would have been in American hymnals during that time, is a vehicle of heartfelt emotion for women feeling oppressed and exposed in a male-dominated culture. They are calling out to their only source of strength, this Rock of Ages, who was cleft for them through His own suffering. Now they cry out, “Let me hide myself in Thee!”
In an earlier, happier scene, Fields and Carnahan bring Frankie’s wedding to life with a ballad that pairs Fields’ lyrics with an 1824 tune called “The False Knight Upon the Road.” This song would have been familiar to people living in the Carolina mountains around 1830. The music is particular to the era, but universal in its ability to stir the heart.
“I believe music unlocks emotion and taps into the vibration of our souls,” Fields says. “It unlocks feeling like nothing else.”
Near the end of the program, Frankie joins with a character called Merciful Spirit to sing a powerful duet in a classical operatic style of music.
Why did Fields choose an operatic piece for this scene? “Opera lends itself better to tragedy than any other kind of emotion,” Fields says. “It causes us to respond in such a way that the tragedy becomes beautifully heightened.”
Bringing the story to life through music has been a personal journey for Fields. “It feels like there’s someone upstairs watching over this project,” he says. “It’s like Frankie Silver’s memorial. Her body may have been dumped along the side of the road. But 189 years later, we are giving her that gift.”
Sneak peak at rehearsal…