“We Shall Not Be Moved,” by the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and the librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, inventively directed by Bill T. Jones, has generated the most attention, for tackling roiling issues of race and inequality. (It’s playing next month at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, en route to London).
This raw, engrossing work looks back at the deadly 1985 incident when Philadelphia police, following several fractious standoffs, dropped bombs on a rowhouse that housed Move, a group of black separatists. Rather that revisiting the incident directly, the opera depicts a crisis in the lives of five North Philadelphia teenagers in 2017, runaways who form their own family. They take refuge in an abandoned house that turns out to be the former location of Move, inhabited by slinking dancer ghosts.
Mr. Roumain skillfully folds gospel, funk, jazz and contemporary classical idioms into the score. In a post-performance conversation with the audience, he said he hopes the piece “changes the notion” of what an opera can be.
It does, though less because of the hybrid musical style than the inclusion of long stretches of spoken text, accompanied by variously hazy, reflective and agitated stirrings in a seven-player instrumental ensemble. Mr. Joseph’s poetic words, whether sung or spoken powerfully, animate the storytelling, especially as delivered by Lauren Whitehead, a poet and dramaturge. She is riveting as Un/Sung, who becomes the motherly protector of this hurting teenage family.
The fine bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock brings aching intensity to John Henry, who is critically wounded during a panicked confrontation with Glenda (Kirstin Chávez), a Latina police officer: a “brown girl,” as she sings, who “bleeds blue.” The clarion-voice countertenor John Holiday breaks your heart as John Blue, a transgender man embraced by this new family.
At one point, bitterly reflecting that it hardly matters that the public schools can’t open on time, Un/Sung says, “On the first day, our cafeteria would still have smelled like a decaying future.” At its best, this opera comes across as an anguished requiem.
The notion of what opera can be may have been jostled even more by David Hertzberg’s “The Wake…