‘Julia,’ an Operatic Monodrama About Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is typically portrayed as a “one-note Julia” in US musical history, known almost exclusively for a single accomplishment: penning the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War. However, she contributed much more to American life than merely “Glory, glory, hallelujah!,” as revealed by Underworld Opera Productions, which will present the operatic monodrama “Julia,” composed by Henry Papale, directed by Gina Crusco, at Peter Norton Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia, 95th Street and Broadway, on September 26 and 29.

Jeannie Im appears as the title character.
Jeannie Im appears as the title character in the September 29th performance. Lettering projected is from Julia Ward Howe’s written draft of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Photo by Jonathan Slaff, 2007.

“Julia” features two singers in the title role: Christine Sperry (on September 26) and Jeannie Im (on September 29). The text for the opera is taken from the letters of Julia Ward Howe as selected and arranged by composer Henry Papale, who scored the opera for a small chamber orchestra: clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.

The Underworld production of “Julia” reveals Julia Ward Howe as a woman deeply involved in all the radical issues of her day, ranging from abolition to women’s suffrage to pacifism during the Franco-Prussian War. She was a prolific writer of travel books and poetry, and spearheaded the original commemorations of Mother’s Day as a celebration of antiwar values.

Composer Henry Papale conceived the opera in 1997, while teaching at Point Park College. During one of his library visits, he came upon the collected letters of Julia Ward Howe and saw them as a wonderful chronology of triumphs and tragedies involving famous names in 19th-century American history such as Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and John Brown. Mr. Papale set about creating a one-woman show based on these letters, using a compositional technique that is an amalgam of 20th century styles, including tonal, non-tonal, bi-tonal, and quartal harmonies.

Part of “Julia” is thematically based on her famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” while other parts employ a folk-like musical idiom. Still other sections resemble an intimate conversational style or make use of arias that excite and stimulate the ear with crushing dissonances. This variety of musical techniques coalesces in a unified sonic landscape, brought together by the strong personality of Mr. Papale’s musical style.

Henry Papale has written, in addition to JULIA, five other operas including “The Nose” and “Bandilyebonu,” hundreds of Art Songs, 10 String Quartets, a dozen Quintets and Trios for all manner of instrumental combination and 200 piano pieces. His chamber opera, “Balloon,” received eight performances in Toronto; other performances of his works include “Four Poems for Chorus & Orchestra,” by The Bach & Madrigal Society of Phoenix; “10 Silhouettes from the Tempest” for Solo Violin at John Harms Theater, Englewood, NJ; “The Shovel Toothed Witch” in Toronto, Canada, “29 Variations on a theme of Paganini” at the Duquesne University Recital Hall; “Four Songs,” Synod Hall, Pittsburgh, Nancy Vance-Jacobs, Soprano; and four “Songs for Mixed Chorus,” The Northern Highlands Voices, Thomas Paster, Director. Mr. Papale is the author of “Banners, Buttons, and Songs: A Pictorial History and Capsule Almanac of Presidential Campaigns” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1984), and is the recipient of the Dumler Prize for Composition and the Army Commendation Medal for furthering Korean-American relations.

Soprano Christine Sperry appears as Julia.
Christine Sperry appears as Julia in the September 26 performance. Photo by Jonathan Slaff, 2007.

Soprano Jeannie Im (who will sing the rule of Julia on Sept. 29) has performed in operas and concerts in the U.S. and Europe since obtaining her M.A. in musicology and a Certificate of Early Music Performance from New York University. Some of her operatic highlights include the role of Gloria in the Italian premiere of Krenek’s “What Price Confidence” at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma; the role of Beatrice/Antiope in the world premiere of Lustgarten’s “Dante im Exil” at the Elysium Bernried Festival. She has also sung the roles of Morgana in “Alicina,” Olympia in “Tales of Hoffman,” Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier” and Cleopatra in “Giulio Cesare,” among others. She has also been a member of Caramoor Bel Canto Soloists for two summers. Ms. Im has also performed at Carnegie Hall several times with the New England Symphonic Ensemble, and has sung several concerts in New York and throughout Europe under the auspices of Elysium-Between Two Continents. She has also performed with the Center for Early Music at NYU and recently debuted with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in the “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.”

Pianist Elizabeth Rodgers, who leads the instrumental ensemble, is a member of the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, which awarded her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She has also taught at Bard College and is pianist in residence with the Berkshire Choral Festival. Known primarily as a versatile ensemble player, Ms. Rodgers has performed with The Metropolitan Players, Downtown Chamber Players, Friends and Enemies of New Music, Music Under Construction and The Lark Ascending. She has participated in the preparation and performance of operas with The Little Orchestra Society, Center for Contemporary Opera, American Opera Projects and Underworld Productions. She has played numerous recitals with singers and instrumentalists, including the distinguished soprano Judith Raskin. Long-time collaborators include soprano Phyllis Clark and hornist Lisa Pike. Active in new music, Ms. Rodgers has premiered works by Miriam Gideon, Marc-Antonio Consoli, Wendy Griffiths, Robert Dennis and Joelle Wallach, among many others. She has recorded with Opus I, CRI, Grenadilla, Musical Heritage, New World, Aurora, Albany, Avant and Mode.

Underworld Productions premieres new works, updates standard repertory, and gives new life to non-mainstream repertory. UP has produced performances of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”; Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”; Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” (set in a Manhattan law firm); Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (set in a psychiatric ward); “A Victorian Christmas Carol” (a premiere featuring a new book and lyrics and adapted Victorian songs; and Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (set in a 1960s cult headquarters). Underworld Productions has been awarded grants by The Puffin Foundation and Venable Foundation, and matching grants from The New York Times Company and Kingdon Capital.

Gina Crusco has been the artistic director of Underworld Productions since 2004. In this capacity, she has developed original performing editions, musically-sensitive abridgements, updatings, original lyrics (“A Victorian Christmas Carol”) and original dialogue (“Magic Flute”). Crusco was the Maestro del Coro of Teatro Lirico Sperimentale di Spoleto for two opera seasons, a position that entailed auditioning singers in the United States for travel to Spoleto, Italy and musical preparation of the chorus for six operas. She has been on the faculty of New School University since 1998, where she teaches beginning and intermediate voice and musicianship for singers.

Performances are September 26 and 29, 2007 at 8:00 p.m. at Peter Norton Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia, 95th St. and Broadway. “Julia” is presented by Underworld Opera Productions, with Gina Crusco as Artistic Director (www.underworldprod.com).

Tickets are $40.00 reserved; $45.00 day of performance. For tickets, please call the Symphony Space box office at 212-864-5400 or visit www.symphonyspace.org.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.