Good neighbors, great music: FLO premieres ‘Two Corners’

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Finger Lakes Opera has enlivened the past 10 summers with productions of standard operas such as “Carmen,” “The Barber of Seville,” and “Aida.” This summer, FLO celebrates the beginning of its second decade, and its commitment to the community, with an unusual new opera, to be presented this weekend.

Opera is often assumed to be a land of make-believe, but “Two Corners” presents a story of real people (two longtime friends) in a real place (Wedowee, Randolph County, Alabama) and at a real and tumultuous time in history (the 1950s through the early 1970s). “Two Corners” is the first collaboration of composer Brittany (B.E.) Boykin and librettist Jarrod Lee, and the opera’s creators describe their road to Friday’s opening night as a very harmonious partnership.

Lee is a professional baritone, “but,” he adds, “I love to write!” He has written several opera libretti and has had his work performed by the Washington National Opera—where he met Boykin at a contemporary opera workshop in 2022.

As the composer and author got to know each other and discussed ideas, Lee suggested a true story based on the friendship of two women in his native Alabama, Sarah and Florine, one white and one Black. They lived on neighboring farms and were friends from childhood, in the 1950s, until Florine’s death from cancer in 1973; Sarah is still alive, in her 90s, and living on the same family farm. In her interviews with people who knew Florine, Boykin heard many memories of “a loving woman of faith,” who kept her illness from her family almost to the end. Similarly, in meeting Sarah she found that she had served for many years as a missionary.

Their relationship was severely tested during and after the Civil Rights era; the opera makes it clear that Florine and Sarah had very different experiences—and have conflicting memories of this period.

“The drama takes place on the outside,” says Lee. “On the inside, we see how these forces inform and define friendship. It’s not about the civil rights movement, it’s about how Sarah and Florine maneuvered through it so that their friendship survived.”

The biggest surprise in this story came when Lee mentioned to Boykin that there were several Boykins in his family tree, and that Boykin also had relatives in this part of Alabama. The composer and librettist are indeed distant cousins, and both of them knew Sarah, along with other family members represented in their opera.

Boykin is known for writing melodic, singable vocal music, but she admits “I never thought I’d be writing an opera.” Once she began composing “Two Corners,” she was hooked. “It is the most diverse and exciting art form,” she says, “capable of being anything.”

Along with her trademark lyricism, Boykin works many other musical styles into her score to reflect the Southern setting and period: R&B rhythms, blues and jazz harmonies, and gospel songs and hymns. The orchestra includes many outstanding RPO and freelance musicians—and also a rhythm section with electric bass and drums.

“Two Corners” will be conducted by FLO founder and artistic director Gerard Floriano, and the role of Florine is played by soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, a popular local artist who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut. Sarah is played by mezzo-soprano Kate Johnson.

Brown and Floriano agree that B.E. Boykin has turned out to be “a natural for opera.” Boykin and Brown had met as fellow Spelman College graduates, and Brown has performed several of Boykin’s songs. The composer wrote the role of Florine with Brown’s voice in mind.

“I guess Brittany thought stratospherically high singing was my superpower!” says Brown, but she adds that her biggest challenge in the role is “playing someone who really lived, in front of people who really knew her.”

Brown also hears the classical American sound of Bernstein and Copland in Boykin’s score. “There are many musical styles, from classical to gospel, but they’re blended seamlessly,” she says. “One moment the music sounds like Saturday night; the next moment, it’s Sunday morning!”

Floriano founded Finger Lakes Opera 10 years ago and has led productions ranging from chamber opera to last summer’s spectacular “Aida.” (Puccini’s one-act farce “Gianni Schicchi” will also be on the FLO boards this summer, performed by singers in the FLO Young Artists Program; see information below.) New operas like “Two Corners,” he says, can bring a rarefied art form a bit closer to contemporary experience.

“Community engagement has always been one of our board’s basic tenets,” says Floriano. “We want “Two Corners” to appeal to regular operagoers; to neophytes, who can enjoy an opera with an interesting story sung in English, with music in familiar styles; and to an audience interested in a reflection of the racial history of Alabama in the mid-20th century.”

Juneteenth performance at Mount Olivet Baptist Church (Photo: FLO/Faceebook)

One of the related events to “Two Corners” was a Juneteenth performance by FLO and community members on June 14 at Mount Olivet Baptist Church. On an informal note, the company recently sponsored “Opera and Ales” at Heroes Brewing Company, with FLO artists singing classic arias and FLO staff members as bartenders.

“As a teacher,” says Floriano, “I found that if you want to teach a student, you have to meet them where they are. The same is true to reach your audience.”

For Floriano, all FLO’s offerings this summer, whether artistically ambitious like “Two Corners,”cultural celebrations like the Juneteenth performance, or just informal fun like “Opera and Ales,” do just that, and show that “our singers don’t just perform and leave town. We in FLO want to be good neighbors.”

The Finger Lakes Opera presents B.E. Boykin and Jarrod Lee’s “Two Corners” on June 28 at 7 p.m. and June 30 at 2 p.m., and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” performed by FLO’s Young Artists, on July 12 at 7 p.m. and July 14 at 2 p.m. at the MCC Mainstage Theatre.

David Raymond is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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