Crossing, a new American opera by Matthew Aucoin

Young Matthew Aucoin’s opera Crossing closed in Boston last Saturday night. The Shubert Theater was packed. At the end the ovation went on and on. The story sung was of Walt Whitman in a Union Army hospital. The themes were grand and wide like Whitman’s. The set was a primitive hidden refuge for wounded soldiers. The relationships that developed between the men,  especially between Whitman and the men in this rough and desperate setting showed a wild flowering of uneasy camaraderie.

Whitman was the great poet of possibility, of affirmation, and of freedom. The land of the free and home of the brave needed him, maybe as much as it needed Lincoln, when the great American experiment seemed to be failing over an issue of freedom during the Civil War.

The opera showed Whitman tending to the wounded men, his psyche and song flowing through a miserable infirmary. Then that crowded set opened up to a river bank and a metaphor for life and the crossing from life to eternity.

Whitman was the great American poet. He stands alone really; there is no one like him. If the term force-of-nature applies to anyone it applies to Whitman. He wasn’t a poet. He was a different kind of writer and person all together, a man without peers and without a category. Most of what Whitman wrote didn’t seem like poetry to the people who read it for the first time. Maybe people who read his poetry today think the same thing. Whitman’s poetry is like a rushing spring river, or a heaving midnight tide; it wants to contain everything, wash over everything.

Whitman’s oversized soul was the soul of the still-young American nation, flowing freely. The heart-breaking part of freedom however is that it comes at the cost of  love. Love constrains, holds, serves, helps, sacrifices, etc, and limits freedom. This true human tragedy–the tradeoff between freedom and love–is captured in the opera. The free person still needs the constraints of love and relationship and community, until life ends and flows into perfect freedom, or is it perfect love?

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