Jonestown Opera Project Finds New Life

by Dan Buckley

It’s been a tough few years for the national economy. As I watch more and more people becoming disenchanted with the current political gridlock in America and even more people becoming upset with their potential lot in life, it’s hard not to think that another Jonestown could easily be brewing.

The economic downturn has been dispiriting for me both in the abstract and even more profoundly in a tangible sense: I was laid off from the Tucson Citizen, the newspaper where I worked for 22 years. I suddenly found myself with the time – but not the motivation and certainly not the resources – to work on my longstanding effort to launch a Jonestown opera. More recently, however, I have found new determination to bring some manifestation of the project to fruition in 2013 in time for the 35th anniversary.

My theatrical concept for the opera involves Jim Jones’ life flashing before his eyes after he is shot. This would be accomplished through a series of multimedia scenes, starting in his childhood and progressing to the very end. I’m kicking around the possibility of a kind of “This is Your Life” treatment with Satan as host, but that remains to be seen. The devil really is in the details.

I’ll use sampling keyboards to play back actual recordings of Jim and his followers. There are literally hundreds of hours of material to go through, edit and format for samplers. These and various other electronic treatments will allow me to make the voices “sing,” or become rhythmic and melodic hooks in the music’s construction.

Beyond the sheer mechanics of creating the sample keyboard layouts, there remains the actual composition of the work, set design and construction, choreography, video production and much more. I had hoped to apply to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding to get those aspects started but was unable to put the full complement together for this granting cycle. Hopefully there will still be an NEA for the next round and I can apply next year.

But much of the conceptual shape of the opera is taking more tangible form. My choice of working with the University of Arizona has been influenced as much by the space as the high quality of the partners.

When I recently returned to the University of Arizona to see if I might rekindle the project, I was happily surprised to get a very positive response from UA Dean of Fine Arts Jory Hancock and interim School of Music director Rex Woods. Both seemed to embrace the vision of the opera as a pivot point for campus-wide discussion of what Jonestown was, how it came about, and the lessons it still holds for us today.

I want this to be a piece that begins and ends in the parking garage. As you exit your car, you will hear music coming from an unseen brass quintet. As you progress down through the pedestrian underpass, another piece will be playing through speakers into the reverberant space.

01-Fine-Arts-Court-2-sw_thumbWhen you arrive at Crowder Hall in the music building, you will be greeted by signs that inform you that no one will be able to enter or leave once the work has started. “Armed” guards will be placed at the doors. A clock will sit on stage, counting down the minutes to showtime, accompanied by a cover version of the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive,” which was at the top of the charts in America a few weeks before the Jonestown tragedy. At the appointed hour, the doors will slam shut, and the opera will begin. It will end in darkness and silence, the opening doors at the back of the hall signifying its conclusion.

As people again head through the pedestrian underpass toward their cars, a spotlight flipped on its side will shine on the back of the exiting crowd to produce ghost images of the people. Back in the parking lot, they will hear the sound of sporadic wind. It is a total experience.

In conjunction with the opera, I am investigating the possibility of a photographic exhibit on Jonestown, and to include new photographs as part of that exhibition, which could then be used in the larger piece. One way to illustrate the magnitude of human loss at Jonestown, for example, might be to hold a mass “die-in” of sorts. In it, 900-plus people would lie down on the lawn of the University of Arizona mall while photographers in the windows of surrounding buildings, and later from a ground perspective, take pictures of the mass of humanity. The event would produce photos for the exhibition and the multimedia opera, and would serve as a very prominent public media blitz for the event.

02-Underpass-3-sw_thumbI am even considering a suggestion that was made, half in jest, mounting a full-scale production in the UA stadium with 900 plus musicians (marching band, singers, orchestra, funk band, DJ, etc.) for the 40th anniversary. Now that would be a total experience! Move over Wagner.

I’ve created a page on my website and started a blog to detail progress for those who want to stay abreast of the effort. I’d appreciate any feedback you might have. Feel free to contact me at dbtucson@gmail.com.

You can also learn much more about me and other projects I’m involved in at http://www.danielbuckleyarts.com/.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 12th, 2013.
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