“Castor and Patience” Examines the History of Black Land Ownership in the U.S.

What does it mean to experience history as something that isn’t in the past? In Castor and Patience, the new opera from composer Gregory Spears and librettist Tracy K. Smith, the ancestors are ever-present. Intersecting narratives span multiple decades — we are afforded the luxury of watching memories play out, and musical themes connect 1870 to 2008, underscoring that the past and the present can often feel the same.

Originally commissioned for Cincinnati Opera’s centennial season in 2020, Castor and Patience finally received its world premiere on July 21, 2022 in the intimate Corbett Theater at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts. Deftly leading members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was conductor Kazem Abdullah, whose recent engagements include Terrence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at The Metropolitan Opera and Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X with Detroit Opera.

According to Tracy K. Smith, “Reconstruction holds the key to the time we are living in now,” and the opera opens on December 31, 1862 — the eve of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Muted brass stings transform into dovetailing eddies of strings and winds as congregants in a praise house count down the minutes until the new year.

Tracy K. Smith (Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths) and Gregory Spears (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Tracy K. Smith (Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths) and Gregory Spears (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Simultaneously occurring in the 1860s-70s, 1960s, and 2008, Castor and Patience examines the fraught history of Black land ownership in the United States through the lens of the two titular cousins: Castor, a family man in his late 40s, is struggling with a ballooning mortgage that he inherited from his parents, who moved north during a late wave of the Great Migration. Patience, meanwhile, has stayed on their family’s land in the American South, which they have managed to hold on to for generations despite threats from predatory real estate developers and government seizures.

Smith’s libretto — her first ever — is the undeniable star of the production, weaving together familial conversations, reverent storytelling, and poetic reflections in a multi-layered narrative. As Castor, in debt and running out of options, attempts to persuade Patience to sell a portion of their jointly inherited land, the opera reckons with ownership and loss, blood and communities, and the responsibility to nurture what you have in the face of alluring new horizons.

Summarizing the central themes of the opera in their program note, Smith and Spears ask:

What and who is home? What can we ask of the people we love? What do we owe them? Are the things we inherit meant to set us free, or bind us more tightly to one another?

Reginald Smith Jr. and Talise Trevigne as Castor and Patience--Photo by Philip Groshong

Reginald Smith Jr. and Talise Trevigne as Castor and Patience–Photo by Philip Groshong

With the exception of a few cliché dissonant clashes and non-idiomatic trumpet orchestration, Spears’ lush score supports the dialogue-driven libretto with percolating syncopation, ebulliently hurtling forward until blossoming, nostalgia-imbued lyricism offers moments of repose. These strategic pauses in the relentlessly churning pace emphasize particularly poignant moments in Smith’s libretto, slowing down to deliver her most essential truths. A particularly striking example comes toward the end of Act I, when Castor’s white wife Celeste (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano) refers to Patience’s efforts to protect her land as “preservation”— Patience firmly asserts that it is instead a matter of cultural survival and spiritual survival.

While the storytelling never falters, the similar way in which much of the dialogue is musically set begins to wear thin toward the end. Spears’ tendency toward minimalism with Baroque sensibilities is highly attractive and worked well in his tighter 2016 opera Fellow Travelers (run time: 2 hours and 5 minutes). But a few additional moments of sonic variety would have been appreciated in the more expansive Castor and Patience (run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes).

The emotive power of the two leads was astounding. Reginald Smith Jr.’s Castor delivered the raw anguish of a patriarch adrift, torn in half by the simultaneity of the past, present, and future. In his arias, Castor’s façade crumbled so easily as Smith’s formidable bass-baritone quickly accelerated from frustration to sheer distress. And as Patience, Talise Trevigne fully embodied the pride and tough exterior of a woman who has been told her entire life that she needs to be strong. Her commanding voice remained nearly infallible throughout, only softening in her final aria where she asks, “What more must I give away before I get free?”

Earl Hazell, Victor Ryan Robertson, Phillip Bullock in Castor and Patience--Photo by Philip Groshong

Earl Hazell, Victor Ryan Robertson, Phillip Bullock in Castor and Patience–Photo by Philip Groshong

Additional standout moments included tenor Victor Ryan Robertson’s aria in the flashback to the 1870s that opens Act II. With the majority of the male characters occupying lower tessituras, Robertson’s resonant, delicate, and crystalline tenor was a welcome and refreshing timbral contrast. And Victoria Okafor’s soprano positively sparkled as Wilhelmina, Patience’s adult daughter.

Castor and Patience ultimately ends without resolution — Patience reveals that Castor’s childhood home still sits on the land she has protected, yet we never find out if Castor sells the property to resolve his debts. But this feels like an appropriately open-ended conclusion, since millions of Black Americans still bear the burden of the issues born from Reconstruction, and there is no right answer to the opera’s core philosophical dilemma. As Patience tells the audience in the final moments of the opera:

All of time is happening
always, all at once, and now. What happened
isn’t gone. What happened is. And we must tend to it.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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