Okpebholo’s Unknown is a powerful tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice

United StatesUnited States Shawn Okpebholo, Unknown: Taylor Raven (mezzo-soprano), Michael Mayes (baritone), Schyler Vargas (baritone), Members of Inscape Chamber Orchestra / Robert Wood (conductor). Urban Arias, Arlington, VA. (Viewed on 11.11.2021 and available to stream free though 11.12.2021 at urbanarias.org.) (RP)

Text – Marcus Amaker
Director – Kristine McIntyre
Original Concept – Shawn Marie Jeffrey
Costumes – Heather C. Jackson
Sets and Props – Mollie Singer
Video – Blue Land Media
Director of Photography – Peter Kent

11 November 2021 marked the hundredth anniversary of the first person to be interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery in northern Virginia just outside Washington. That Unknown Soldier of World War I was later joined by the unidentified remains of servicemen from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The remains of the latter were identified in 1998, and it was determined that the crypt of the Vietnam Unknown will remain empty in perpetuity. Although science has made such memorials obsolete, Arlington Cemetery and others around the world are still hallowed ground.

Urban Arias has partnered with opera companies from across the US – the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, Opera Colorado, Opera Birmingham, Minnesota Opera and the Dallas Opera – in commissioning Unknown to commemorate the anniversary. Time was of the essence: Shawn Jeffery of ADA Artist Management pitched the idea to Urban Arias in early 2021. The outcome was a twenty-minute dramatic song cycle of rare emotional power and beauty for three voices and instruments.

Earlier in 2021, Shawn Okpebholo began a two-year residency as Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer at Chicago Opera Theater. He composed the five-movement song cycle to a text by Marcus Amaker, a graphic designer, videographer, web designer, musician and poet who was named Charleston, South Carolina’s first poet laureate in 2016. Amaker’s text explores the innermost feelings of soldiers as they go off to war and ultimately die for their country. It also examines the complex relationship of those who do not serve and the heartache they endure.

Okpebholo’s excellent program notes leave no doubt of what he sought to achieve in setting Amaker’s words to music. The first movement is an anthem in which a solder acknowledges the realities of war, but expresses her pride in her country and the sacrifices she is willing to make for the place that she calls home. Home is a theme that recurs throughout Amaker’s text.

A melancholy waltz is the musical framework in the second movement for a man haunted by memories of a loved one missing in action in the Vietnam War. The third part is the profoundly moving lament of a wounded soldier who realizes that he is going to die.

In the fourth movement, Okpebholo composed a dignified march based on the precise steps that the guards who protect the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier execute twenty-four hours a day. He also incorporated into the musical fabric ‘Taps’, the bugle call played during military funerals; and a quotation from ‘America the Beautiful’, inspired by the words ‘Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life’.

The final section is a memorial to those who have given their lives for their country, in which all three voices reflect on what it means to go off to war. Okpebholo weaves motives, harmonies, themes and texts from the previous four movements to bring the work to a contemplative end.

Robert Wood draws a stirring performance from members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra. Scored for strings, saxophone, percussion and piano, Okpebholo’s score is sparse, although of remarkable crystalline beauty and purity. There are alluring melodies for the singers underpinned by rhythmic vitality and subtle colorings in the instruments, especially from the percussion.

The video is a mix of live performance filmed at Wolf Trap, scenes of the three singers as the characters they depict and footage of Arlington Cemetery. The camera focuses on details that intensify the emotions expressed in the music: the young soldier lacing up her boots, an older man reliving memories through photos and letters and the face of a young man facing his own mortality. The images of soldiers keeping watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and haunting footage of Arlington Cemetery are powerful beyond words.

Urban Arias assembled a trio of singers – mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven and baritones Michael Mayes and Schyler Vargas – who give committed, dignified performances. Mayes, renowned for powerful parts in American operas of the recent past, employs his voice to express the anguish endured by so many who have lost loved ones in war. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Raven embodies the pride and hope of a new soldier, her warm mezzo-soprano able to express the subtlest emotions.

Schyler Vargas in Unknown © Heather C. Jackson

The most arresting performance came from Vargas as the mortally wounded young soldier. This passage finds Amaker at his most eloquent, expressing the soldier’s stoic acceptance of his fate and the realization that he was made to have an ending. The power of the words is equaled by the emotion conveyed through the music at the exact moment that a soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. It is to them, with or without memorials, that Unknown pays tribute so majestically.

Rick Perdian

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