A hundred years ago, almost to the day, Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, cast her first vote — a vote against this country’s entrance into the First World War. She served just a single term but was elected again several decades later in time to cast the only congressional vote against the U.S. entrance into the Second World War, for which she was soundly castigated. After another single term, this indomitable force surfaced once again, at 88, to lead a women’s march on Washington, this time to protest the Vietnam War.
Rankin is the subject of “Fierce Grace,” a song cycle that premiered Friday at the Library of Congress. Opera America commissioned the piece from librettist Kimberly Reed and a team of four composers: Ellen Reid, Kitty Brazelton, Laura Kaminsky and Laura Karpman, recipients of Opera America grants for female composers. Each contributed a 10-minute song to a project that, together, crafts the portrait of a woman whose musical persona is, perhaps, more intrepid than fierce.
Reed has fashioned four vignettes from Rankin’s life, each of the first three ending with the phrase “who must come after,” an echo of Rankin’s conviction that “I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last.” The vignettes (as explained in a post-concert discussion) were assigned randomly to the quartet of composers, whose operatic inclinations emerged in songs heavy on recitative and whose lyrical passages move the story along briskly even when they are at their most reflective.
Not surprisingly, the collaborative effort has had mixed results. The increasingly assertive four-note motif in the first song (by Reid) provides vivid signposts along Rankin’s journey from her Montana home to the halls of Congress. And the lyricism of Karpman’s finale, a young researcher’s gratitude for Rankin’s “habit of peace,” offers a satisfying resolution. But these two flank a pair of songs whose dramatic messages were harder to discern.
You might think that a scene that has Rankin taking refuge in a phone booth while besieged by angry crowds would be fun to set, but there was little frantic, menacing or even comic in Brazelton’s score, which had the piano growling and clumping around under bouts of vocal dithering. And the French-sounding neoclassicism of Kaminsky’s take on the women’s march seemed strangely out of sync with the text’s repeated “step, step, step.”
Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, who sings with an abundance of accuracy and control, seemed vocally light for a character with such moral convictions and was at her best as the young student researcher in the final song. Pianist Mila Henry handled the very different and very challenging accompaniments masterfully.