A Member of Firebird Arts Alliance
HOME: Reflections on Bach's St. John Passion
I consider the St. John Passion home. When I was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music, my voice teacher, Robert Swensen, felt that the aria “Mein Teurer Heiland” would be a good fit for my voice. So I began to study the entire St. John Passion score and soon felt intense identification with all of the characters and all of the emotions. I had already promised the Lord to follow him gladly, as the soprano sings in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls,” and I had so many questions for Christ on the cross, as the bass does in “Mein teurer Heiland.”
You see, I grew up in a black Southern Baptist household, but in my adolescence my family joined a predominantly white Independent Fundamental Baptist Church. It was there that most of my young theology was formed. We attended services at least three times a week. My family was always on call to provide special music. We housed missionaries whenever they came to town. And I went to all the bible camps. I was growing more ecstatic about my faith every day. But I was also growing ashamed of my body. I was in the closet -- and didn’t know it yet.
Much like the A and B sections of a da capo aria, I had a conflict that was part of my structure. It seemed to me that Bach, even as devout as we paint him to be, also understood conflict. So there I was, a black, gay, boy from the South, staring at a dusty St. John Passion score in my dorm room in downtown Rochester listening to a recording and hearing my conflict scored brilliantly by a Lutheran composer in the 18th century. And it was there that I found my musical home.
Returning to this home fifteen years after first discovering it seems very timely. In the interim, I made Leipzig my second home, passing by the St. Nicholas Church, where Bach premiered his St. John Passion in 1724, every day on my way to work at the opera house. I participated in the 20th International Bach Competition last year, and I’ve sung multiple large scale and smaller works by the composer and his contemporaries.
During this time, I’ve also watched the world become more aware of what many African Americans have never forgotten: that the state will often abuse its power and seek to maintain order by sacrificing problematic bodies; and that those in positions of authority will often blame victims for their suffering.
In this production with David Tang and the Firebird Arts Alliance, I sing the role of Pontius Pilate, who, despite finding no fault in Jesus, sentences him to die. My character challenges the angry crowd that feels threatened by the existence of someone "different," but Pilate ultimately succumbs to the crowd’s need to feel safe in their homes, preferring a semblance of peace to justice.
As much as the St. John Passion depicts human frailty and failure, it also suggests redemption and reconciliation. It represents a recognition of how unjust we can be, how bystanders and onlookers can effortlessly contribute to injustice. In taking part in this production, we are able to recognize our compliance with an unjust system. Would that with the final double bar, we could begin our work to create a safe space for all, no matter what they prophecy, no matter what they look like, no matter who they love, no matter how they express their gender, here in our home.