When composer and multi-instrumentalist Toshi Reagon first received a copy of Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” she was already familiar with the late author’s work. But something about it was more disturbing than his other novels. It was present and immediate and what Reagon called “strangely available.”
Written in 1993, the opening pages of “Parable of the Sower” introduce readers to a Southern California ravaged by the violence of climate disasters and the evils of corruption and capitalism. “With a lot of his other books, you can formulate a distance from history,” Reagon explained. “It could be about aliens and stuff, and as you read it you find yourself in it. But the parable, right from the start, like the first page, I was like, ‘ It’s… I don’t know.’ »
She quickly discovered it. And then she wrote an opera about it.
Reagon’s “Parable of the Sower”, with music and a libretto co-written by his mother Bernice Johnson Reagon, had its world premiere in Abu Dhabi in November 2017. It opens in Boston next week, from April 21 to April 24, by way of Arts Emerson.
Opera adaptations have many creative and logistical hurdles to jump through, and “Parable of the Sower” is no exception. Although Butler’s award-winning novel isn’t what you’d consider a long book (the first edition is 299 pages), it’s laden with uncomfortable themes and a narrative format tied to the protagonist’s new religious movement, Earthseed. “We just knew it couldn’t be, like, five o’clock,” Reagon said. “But Octavia is brilliant and she told the story really well. We followed her instructions.
Musically, Reagon draws on the deep history of Negro Spiritual, tying it to the preacher of a father’s story, using it in a way that represents the long African-American past. She designed the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, so that her voice moves across the spectrum of black music, taking the audience “through time” along the way. A trio of characters called “talents” (including one played by Reagon herself) are functional storytellers. As they operate out of time, they can sing however they want, regardless of idiomatic musical anachronism.
The result is what Reagon calls a “congregational opera”. It’s far from an orderly or practical genre description, but as she explained to Minnesota Public Radio in 2019, “it really describes what we’re trying to do, which is that everyone world – the audience, the actors and the music – occupy a space and an energy together, and to take this unity as an opportunity.
The existence of “Parable of the Sower” as an opera is also tied to Bernice Johnson Reagon, Toshi’s mother. Born in southwest Georgia in 1942, she was an active part of the embodiment of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She was a founding member of the Freedom Singers, a vocal quartet whose performers supported a number of civil rights campaigns, including those of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In the 1970s, Bernice Johnson Reagon earned her doctorate. from Howard University, where she also worked with the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival. She was the musical director of the DC Black Repertory, whose space housed independent theater and dance companies.
This wave of musical and community activity was the basis of the Washington, D.C. in which Toshi Reagon would be raised. “Now I realize how amazing it was,” recalls Toshi Reagon. “All these young black artists creating works together, it’s fantastic. I could see things start from a very small place and eventually end up on a stage, and run night after night. I loved this when I was a kid. So I already kind of had a feeling that you could tell any story you wanted, it was just about bringing the community together to do it.
Now she has a crew of around 30 and is ready to bring “Parable of the Sower” back to a post-lockdown world. It’s tempting to draw parallels between the new COVID-era production, set amid war, random acts of violence, and a climate crisis, and the dark setting of Butler’s novel. Reagon, however, makes no such comparison – because the plagues of the world are nothing new. “Humans are just a little ridiculous about the truth of their existence,” the composer said. “We are wonderful, but we are the most destructive force on the planet. It’s us. They are human beings. And [we have an] inability to retain certain simple truths about the fact that we are literally earthlings – like everything that breathes and lives here. Like, we’re no different than grass.
As long as humans remain human, this world will always be an appropriate planetary location for a “parable of the sower.”
ArtsEmerson Presents “Parable of the Sower” April 21-24 at the Emerson Cultler Majestic Theater