“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer is widely known for her famous quotation.
That was about the extent of Nicole Joy Mitchell’s knowledge of Hamer’s life and activism growing up.
“She was a familiar name and a familiar face, but I didn’t know detailed as much as I have come to know now — and I’m still learning about her,” she said.
Mitchell is a classically-trained contralto. She sings the role of Hamer, the 20th child of a Mississippi sharecropper and a key voice in the fight for Black voting rights in the 60s, in the new one-act opera, “This Little Light of Mine.”
The new opera depicts pivotal moments from Hamer’s life and her unwavering advocacy that set the course for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Mitchell said it’s been rewarding, but painful work because Hamer endured horrific things, like in the summer of 1963, when Hamer and several other Black activists were returning home from a voter workshop in another state. Police arrested them after they sat at a “whites only” lunch counter. Hamer was beaten to the brink of death at the jailhouse, sustaining injuries for the rest of her life.
“The emotion of it, I want to tap into it with my voice,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t want it to take me out of my technique and what I have to do because I mean I could be crying all the way through it. But that won’t be good for anyone.”
The opera is still in development. Kentucky Opera will premiere a workshop performance on its YouTube channel Saturday evening, a co-presentation with the Santa Fe company. The event celebrates Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers told enslaved people in Texas that they were free; this was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Bringing Hamer’s life to the stage
Chandler Carter composed the music for the new opera.
He got the idea in 2017, but has been drawn to Hamer for decades.
“Fannie Lou Hamer is a voice that, well, it’s immediately authentic… For many, it was frightening. And for many thousands more, it was inspiring,” Carter said. “But it got kind of lost in history… And that should be corrected.”
To create the score, Carter drew on recordings of Hamer’s voice.
“Fannie Lou Hamer was a wonderful singer,” Carter said.
Music was integral to Hamer’s activism. She sang to calm demonstrators during tense moments and she sang to mobilize others in the cause, NPR reported in 2015.
Carter also transcribed her speaking voice, “and the rhythms of it, and use that as a basis for some of the melodic material.”
He also wove in audio excerpts from Hamer speaking publicly, such as a stirring testimony Hamer addressed to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?,” Hamer said.
Carter said he and Diana Solomon-Glover, who wrote the opera’s libretto, wanted to keep the cast small: just three principals. They also wanted all of the principals to be Black women. So one of Hamer’s adopted daughters, Dorothy Jean, is the character who serves as narrator. And as narrator, she tells the story of the white authorities who harassed and threatened her mother throughout her life.
“It turns the tables,” Carter said of this artistic choice. “It gives you a little power over these characters that have historically victimized you.”
“Dorothy Jean is the embodiment of the illness, the sickness of racism,” Solomon-Glover said.
While it was important to center Black voices, Carter is white, and therefore, felt it necessary to do this in deep collaboration with Solomon-Glover.
“I’m just one person in this process,” Carter said.
Solomon-Glover, who is Black, has collaborated with Carter in the past. She said saying yes to this project was a no-brainer.
She remembers getting an email from him over a weekend, as she was serendipitously thinking about new projects. And when Carter, in that email, asked her to write the libretto for an opera about Fannie Lou Hamer, “I quickly replied, ‘expletive, yeah’ with an exclamation point.”
Opera as a living, breathing art form
Kentucky Opera general director and CEO Barbara Lynne Jamison, who got involved with Opera for All Voices while she was still with Seattle Opera, said the program is about expanding perceptions of what opera can do.
“What was really important to that initiative is that the stories we were telling through opera were not just historical, European stories, but that we were looking at opera as an art form that is still evolving, still telling stories that matter to human beings,” she said. “And that we’re still elevating those stories, acting them out, singing them out.”
Andrea Fineberg, director of community engagement for the Santa Fe Opera, added that another hope for the program is to create “nimble” works.
“So more companies and companies of different sizes could produce them,” she said. They’re one-act, two to three principle artists, a small chamber ensemble, and again, they reflect the world around us rather than hearken back to another kind of idealized, ossified [notion].”
Librettist Diana Solomon-Glover believes music is a powerful medium for sharing social justice stories, like that of Fannie Lou Hamer.
“Human beings get music on a cellular level. It’s primordial,” she said. There’s very little ego filtering. It goes straight to the cells and, therefore, has the power to transform.”
Drawing a direct line to the present
Solomon-Glover calls Hamer, “one of the mothers of the civil rights movement,” who laid the groundwork for present-day social justice movements like Black Lives Matter.
Like Hamer, she’s also frustrated with the glacial pace of progress.
“Four hundred years, we’ve been fighting the same fight for our lives to matter,” she said.
And after everything Fannie Lou Hamer went through, Solomon-Glover said it’s hurtful to see lawmakers across the country making it harder to vote.
“It doesn’t matter how many LeBron James’ you have, or Jessye Norman’s, or even Barack Obama’s, those accomplishments are considered consciously and subconsciously as anomalies,” Solomon-Glover said. “So we have a lot of work to do in terms of recognizing, admitting to our caste system, and figuring out intentionally how to break it up.”
The hope is to eventually debut the opera fully produced and on a stage.