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We Shall Not Be Moved is a new opera that takes its name from both the old spiritual-turned-civil-rights anthem and the Philadelphia black liberation group, MOVE. That group might be best-remembered for a 1985 tragedy: A police helicopter bombed the MOVE house, and the resulting fire killed 11 people and destroyed 62 homes in the neighborhood.
The opera, presented by Opera Philadelphia with the Apollo Theater, had its world premiere Sept. 16. It revisits that house and its ghosts, while remaining centered on stories about young people in Philadelphia today.
Librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph says that even though the events of the MOVE bombing happened more than 32 years ago, they still haunt the citizens of Philadelphia.
"I've heard one person say that the bombing of the MOVE house was like a Sept. 11 event for, you know, people in the city of Philly," he says, "that they'll always remember where they were, and they experienced a collective trauma."
So, he and his collaborators — composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and director and choreographer Bill T. Jones — tread carefully. They were inspired by poems created through a teen workshop sponsored by Opera Philadelphia and a local non-profit. And they cast New York spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead as a 15-year-old girl who leads a group of young men whose school has been closed due to budget cuts.
"She arrives at school one day and the doors are locked," Whitehead explains. "She convinces her brothers that instead of going to the other school where they've been assigned, that they should, sort of, squat in the bombed-out shell of a home on Osage Avenue. And she really begins to believe that she's getting lessons from ghosts while she is there."
They are the ghosts of the children killed in the MOVE bombing.
"The musical material for the opera, actually, in many ways, began with thinking about Little Richard and even blues music," he says, "just thinking about three notes, three chords: Can I write an entire opera based on three chords, and not as Wagnerian motif, but really more as this notion of the blues?"
It also draws on R&B – but it doesn't sacrifice the influence of traditional opera.
"Glenda, our truancy officer, a wonderful mezzo, is our opera singer," Roumain says. "I think every opera has to have one."
We Shall Not Be Moved also features movement created by legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones. Jones, like the rest of his collaborators, is not from Philadelphia. But he says what happened in 1985 still resonates beyond the city limits.
"'What you thought was dead is very much alive,'" he says, quoting lyrics from the opera.
"Is that true that there's a silence in Philly around it?" he says, "Are we picking a fight where there is no fight? Have the wounds not healed? Have they?"
But Whitehead says the opera is very much about the lost children of today.
"They just wanted to go to school and school failed them," Whitehead says. "Their parents failed them. The police presence in their community failed them. Every institution, everywhere they turned, failed them. And that's the heartbreaking thing about this opera, I think, is that, you know, it's a true American story of kids who have nothing but each other, and the trouble that that can get them into."
It's a different kind of opera, presented in a different way, says Joseph.
"I don't know how many world premiere operas have been written by a black man, composed by a black man and directed by a black man," he says. "But that's what we have. That, in and of itself, is shaking up the aesthetic framework of what an opera is supposed to be."
Joseph adds that to "delve into the politics and to ask the questions that we do" also makes the opera stand out.
We Shall Not Be Moved will be asking those questions to sold-out audiences in Philadelphia before it moves on to New York.