By Rita Bratovich
It’s a sad truth that many of the significant turning points in LGBTQI history are also horrendously violent and tragic. The murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in 1998 is a far too perfect example. On a cold night in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, Shepard was brought to a remote field by two men he met in a bar.
The men tied Shepard to a fence, tortured and pistol-whipped him about the head, then left him to the elements. He was found barely alive 18 hours later by a passing cyclist.
Shepard spent five days in hospital before succumbing to his injuries, during which time the horrific story had rippled across the country and the world, prompting vigils and then outrage. It ultimately led to the US Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Matthew Shepard’s story has been rendered in many art forms but none so viscerally and exquisitely as in Craig Hella Johnson’s choral work, Considering Matthew Shepard. The American composer was inspired by the universal resonance of Shepard’s story.
“Why did Matt’s story rise above countless others to become the internationally known story it became?” Johnson asked.
“At the time, and sadly, in this present day, there are thousands of hate crimes that happen every year and go unnoticed. With Matt’s story there were many factors that may contribute to the ‘known-ness’ of his story.
“A significant factor, I believe, is the way in which he was beaten and left to die on the fence – it recalled for many the iconic image of the cross, and this is an incredibly powerful historical and cultural symbol.
“Matt was also the ‘ordinary boy’— the boy next door— many people identified with Matt as this regular kid. ‘How could this have happened to someone who could have been my son/neighbour/friend/brother/self? It remains an open question.”
Johnson believes we need to keep the story in the public psyche because it remains relevant.
“I composed this piece as a way to remember Matt and with the hopes that we would not forget.” he says. “Little did I know that hate crimes would be a growing, continuing problem in these very challenging times. Sadly, the work feels relevant and timely again.”
The response to performances has been consistently enthusiastic and intense, with Johnson describing an “experience of truly transformational journeys with audiences.”
Considering Matthew Shepard is making its Sydney debut as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.
“I am so deeply honoured that this work is being premiered by this wonderful organisation,” says Johnson. “I am immensely grateful and can’t wait to hear the reports. I love sydney and so wish I could be there.”
Brett Weymark is the artistic director of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs whose VOX Young Adult Choir will be performing the work.
Weymark concurs with Johnson regarding the global impact of Matthew Shepard’s story.
“It was like a September 11 moment, wasn’t it?” he says. “Really, I mean we were just so incredibly shocked by it. And actually re-reading some of the details…you sort of relive the horror that you had at the time, I think. I mean just that image of a defenceless human being being left essentially to die against a post for hours on end is something I still find incredibly shocking.”
Weymark describes Considering Matthew Shepard as similar to a modern passion. (A classical passion is a choral work that depicts events leading to and including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.)
“Craig absolutely wears his heart on his sleeve with this piece, so it’s incredibly emotionally charged,” says Weymark.
Musically, it references everything from Broadway, to Hildegard, Gregorian Chant, Bach, and even Country and Western.
The text is based on verbatim quotes and documents.
“There is actually some spoken dialogue in it as well, and some of the text is from diary entries that Matthew wrote, others are from his mother’s account,” explains Weymark.
“It’s a bit like a musical version of The Laramie Project in the sense that that we hear different voices. And there is one very disturbing scene where the protests that were staged by the Westboro Church are set to music.”
Considering Matthew Shepard is being presented in partnership with City Recital Hall and Weymark says he feels very proud and the choir is very excited about performing it.
“It’s a story that definitely needs to be told. I think music has the ability to make the argument even more powerful because of the emotional element.”
Considering Matthew Shepard, City Recital Hall, Thursday February 20, 7:30pm. www.cityrecitalhall.com