On July 12, 1833, the hanging of Frances Stewart Silver was witnessed by a hoard of strangers and curious onlookers in Morganton, North Carolina. Her 18-year-old body was dumped in a shallow grave by her father and brother along a dusty mountain road, abandoned and forgotten for 187 years. But for a cruelly distorted folk ballad, and a bestselling novel, her story might have been totally forgotten.
I first read Sharyn McCrumb’s truth-telling Ballad of Frankie Silver over 20 years ago.I knew immediately that the twisted, complicated, disturbing, heartbreaking story of Frankie Silver’s crimes and punishment would make a sensational opera. So, with the author’s enthusiastic support, my dear friend and composer Jon Polifrone and I set out to create a fully staged operatic adaptation of her book. I eagerly began writing the libretto but, sadly, a year later when his chronic heart condition worsened, Jon and my libretto were laid to rest.
Fast forward to 2018 when Kirk Hoaglund, a new and enthusiastic member of Sonomento, MacPhail’s premier adult choral ensemble that I conducted, generously proposed to underwrite the commission of a major new choral for the choir. We then engaged talented Minneapolis composer Craig Carnahan, even before a specific subject matter had been determined, other than a general theme concerning social justice. As we discussed a subject and text for the new work, I remembered the Ballad of Frankie Silver and proposed that Frankie Silver’s tragic story might be the right choice for this project. We all enthusiastically agreed. Shortly thereafter, Kirk and I co-founded ORPHEUS Music Project as a not-for-profit enterprise to produce this large, resource-intensive project and perhaps future projects as well.
Pivoting from my 1999 operatic adaptation of the McCrumb’s book – with sets, lights, costumes and staging – to a choral concert presentation necessitated a radically different approach. After many rewrites, a dramatic vision of a semi-staged concert work combining storytelling, some operatic stage elements and a new choral setting of the traditional requiem mass took shape. Requiem for Frankie Silver emerged as “a musical drama for storyteller, singers and players”, a fusion of concert, opera, oratorio, orchestral work, reader’s theatre, historical commentary, societal parable, and requiem mass. With this musical adaptation we tell her compelling story through the power of music and we raise our voices together in beautiful song to honor the brief, tragic life of Frances Stewart Silver.
Sharyn McCrumb’s bestselling book, Ballad of Frankie Silver, revealed a riveting forgotten story after nearly 170 years and its exhaustive research finally set the twisted historical record straight. We hope that this Requiem for Frankie Silver elevates the emotional impact of her story even more and intensifies the tragedy of the injustices that befell her. Moreover, both works attempt to deliver a critical social message for our own time: a harsh, but necessary reminder that much is still to be done to ensure justice for the poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged of this world … because, ultimately, injustice against one, is injustice by all.