By Richard Knox
Prepare to be moved – as, without fail, audiences around the world have been affected by the deep pathos of Matthew Shepard’s story. This “ordinary boy” has become our time’s best-known hate crime victim. His brutal killing is part of an ineradicable stain on humanity stretching all the way from Cain and Abel to today’s headlines.
It was almost 22 years ago that two 20-somethings named Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson kidnapped 105-pound Matthew, who apparently thought he was getting a ride home. Instead they drove him to a lonely spot on the Wyoming prairie, savagely beat and kicked him, then tied him to a fence to suffer alone on a chill October night. Sometime during that lonely ordeal, Matthew sank into a coma from which he never woke.
Matthew’s murder immediately drew worldwide notice. Network TV anchors intoned the sensational news. Thousands – including celebrities such as Ted Kennedy and Ellen DeGeneres – gathered for candlelight vigils. More than 1,000 attended Matthew’s funeral, including protesters with hate-distorted faces from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, bearing signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags” and “Matthew Burns in Hell.”
Eleven years later Matthew’s parents Judy and Dennis Shepard looked on as President Obama signed legislation making hate-motivated violence against people and property a federal crime. The Laramie Project, a 2000 play about Matthew’s murder, has been frequently performed by professional and amateur groups.
Clearly, Matthew Shepard’s story has had remarkable staying power. Call it the Matthew Effect. “His particular case was one of the first that struck a chord with the nation and even the world,” Judy Shepard wrote in an email exchange. “Maybe it was because he looked like the boy next door.”
That surely was a factor in the immediate response, but it doesn’t explain the durability of the Matthew Effect. In part that’s due to the fact that his murder coincided with the gathering strength of the gay rights movement. Another factor, certainly, is the Shepards’ commitment to making sure their son’s life would become a vehicle for a broad-based effort to combat hate crimes of all sorts. Only three months after his death they launched a foundation that more than two decades later documents hate crimes, lobbies for legislation and promotes acceptance and tolerance among schoolchildren, college students, law enforcement officers and politicians – anyone who will listen.
And now, you get to experience another remarkable aspect of the Matthew Effect. Considering Matthew Shepard, a concert-length oratorio by Texas composer Craig Hella Johnson, debuted four years ago. Already the piece has had at least 43 performances in the United States and beyond. Fifteen more are scheduled so far in 2020, including one in Australia.
ChoralArt director Robert Russell first encountered CMS two years ago at a national convention of collegiate choral directors. He approached that performance as a wary skeptic, “not certain what I would hear: posturing, preaching, complaint, chaos?” Instead, Russell says he was “mesmerized, moved and touched in a way I was not expecting.” He came away determined to bring the experience home to Maine.
Composer Johnson calls CMS an oratorio, placing it in the venerable 300-year tradition of choral story-telling, embracing religious and secular subjects, employed by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Elgar and mid-20th-century composers. But CMS is unlike any oratorio you’ve ever heard.
Russell calls the piece a “fusion oratorio.” Within its structure, the work takes us through a gamut of musical languages that includes country and folk, musical theater, contemporary choral scene-painting, blues and Southern hymnody. You’ll hear quotations from a Bach keyboard prelude and his St. John Passion, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and the cadences of Gregorian chant.
It retains elements of classical oratorios – a combination of dramatic choral pieces interspersed with solo arias, narratives (sung or spoken) and hymn-like chorales that offer universal commentaries. At its heart is a Passion, depicting the agony of Matthew’s brutal murder and meditations on it. Passages of darkness and unbearable pain are relieved by those of comfort and, ultimately, hope.
The culmination is a soaring, gathering-up gospel tune called “All of Us.” It’s a paean that lifts us out of the darkness of Matthew Shepard’s murder and other evils that beset humankind:
Never our despair,
Never the least of us,
Never turn away,
Never hide our face;
Only all of us,
Free us from our fear….
The libretto draws on an unlikely array of sources, including the 11th-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, the American poet Michael Dennis Browne, Bengali and Persian poets, the words of Blake and Dante, native American prayers, contemporary Wyoming poets, and more. The words embody the universality of the message across time and cultures.
Some of the most striking imagery comes from the poetry of Massachusetts poet Leslea Newman. In a 2012 collection called October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, Newman imagines the fence his killers tied him to as a “witness” to the otherwise unwitnessed crime. Johnson uses several of Newman’s “fence” poems to anchor listeners to the painful and poignant reality of Matthew’s murder.
Amidst all these eclectic sources, some of the most affecting passages set the actual words of Matthew himself. Early in the piece we hear “An Ordinary Boy,” self-descriptions from Matthew’s diary that paint a portrait of a young man full of “ordinary yearning and ordinary fears, with an ordinary hope for belonging.” We also hear his parents’ actual words, once uttered in a Wyoming courtroom. His mother heartbreakingly calls Matthew “my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be – and how hurtful.”
Spoken recitations carry the narrative forward. In one passage, Dennis Shepard wrenchingly describes to the court the lonely murder scene as the father struggles to find some measure of comfort in his son’s final perceptions of the night sky, the scent of sagebrush and pine, the ever-present Wyoming wind.
These verbatim passages underscore the inescapable reality of what happened to Matthew Shepard. Beyond that, they are inflection points among the almost overwhelmingly intense choral movements. “The recitations are brilliant,” Russell says. “They allow the audience moments to collect and say, ‘OK, what’s next?’ And what comes next seems to me the absolutely right choice for that moment.”
Despite its grim and painful narrative, CMS is gloriously uplifting.
“The piece actually became a whole lot more than just the story of the suffering,” composer Johnson told Colorado Public Radio around the time of its debut. “It needed to become this larger invitation to return to love. And to return to remember who we are as human beings, in the deepest sense of our essence.”
Russell says this transcendent landing place explains the appeal CMS has already demonstrated. He predicts the piece will become a staple of the choral repertoire. “This is a musical experience that will leave you transformed,” Russell promises. “It’s the story of life over death, love over hate, light over darkness.”
Unfortunately, its core message is just as relevant as the Matthew Effect was back in 1998. The latest FBI statistics on hate crimes document 20 such incidents a day – a 16-year high. The trend is driven by a shift away from property vandalism toward violence against people. And more than half of these hateful acts never get reported.
Richard Knox, a writer living in Sandwich, NH, sang in the New Hampshire Master Chorale’s five performances of Considering Matthew Shepard in 2018 and 2019.
Tickets to ChoraArt’s performance of Considering Matthew Shepard may be purchased here.