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Opera Tenor Channels Young John Lewis in ‘Appomattox’

Ballantine, second from right, plays Lewis during 'Appomattox.' (Scott Suchman/WNO)
Ballantine, second from right, plays Lewis during 'Appomattox.' (Scott Suchman/WNO)

There’s really no other place but the Kennedy Center to launch the premiere of an overhauled version of “Appomattox,” the Philip Glass opera about the end of the Civil War set at the eponymous courthouse.  

The opera, which premiered in San Francisco in 2007, underwent a complete transformation after the Supreme Court upended the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Now there’s a new second act set during the Civil Rights era that features a young John Lewis — now the veteran congressman from Georgia.  

Los Angeles-based tenor Frederick Ballentine has the particularly daunting task of portraying Lewis, a leader of the seminal march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., that sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  

“He seems just like some of my friends from back home, because I looked at him from back when he was 25,” Ballentine told CQ Roll Call about Lewis. “I had to just turn him into the voice of young black people at the time, and that is essentially what he was, I think.”  

Ballentine and other members of the cast for the Washington National Opera production sing the parts of different characters in the first act — which takes place at Appomattox Courthouse — and the second, but the artistic choice is that the roles overlap.  

Ballentine, for instance, plays Thomas Morris Chester. According to The New York Times , Chester was the only black war correspondent for a major newspaper in that time. The performer portraying Abraham Lincoln then plays the role of Lyndon B. Johnson.  

Those involved in the production are well aware of the audiences the Kennedy Center’s opera house attracts, like the perennial odd couple of Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.  

“I probably can’t speak for the entire cast, but I hope that they can come and I hope that they can see what we’ve done here in trying to … show the problems that were present then and trying to find that in the problems that are present in our daily life,” Ballentine said.  

“You try to find what occurs in opera that you can put into your daily life,” he continued. “That’s why when you go to any show you feel it so intensely, and I feel like that’s going to happen even more in this show. I feel like that’s why we want them to come to this.”  

Glass and his collaborator, playwright Christopher Hampton, had developed the original production in 2005 and 2006 and the duo decided it needed to be revised in light of recent events.  

“It’s not art imitating life; it’s art trying to catch up with life,” Glass said in summing up the situation to the Times. “Because life is changing in front of us.”  

Ballentine said he actually entered the process knowing more about the events of the Civil War than about the seminal moments of the civil rights movement, but he thought the opera demonstrates the slow movement of history.  

“It’s jarring to me, because we’re trying to show how little had changed during that time, how slow the act of progress is, and when you think about it and you look at what’s happening now,” he said. “You look at police brutality that’s going on now, and … you can’t help but notice that yeah, we have taken huge steps forward within the last 50 years, but how many steps?”  

The new version of “Appomattox” runs through Nov. 22 at the Kennedy Center.  

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