I’m a composer of modern classical music, but it’s only been recently that I became interested in writing an opera. That was when my own personal research into Peoples Temple led me to the story of Christine Miller.
Christine was apparently one of the few residents of Jonestown who had developed a pattern of speaking her mind to Jim Jones. On the audiotape which captures the tragic events of November 18, 1978, hers was the only voice of significant dissent to Jones’ proposed action. In fact, she stood right before Jones and used tenet after tenet of his own teachings to argue against his plan. An article by Michael Bellefountaine on this site shows what a truly forceful person she was.
Christine’s story lit a fire under me. Fuel was added when I realized what a perfect vehicle such a work would be for my friend Tichina Vaughn, a wonderful mezzo-soprano active in Europe and America, who plays powerful women with great dynamism. She’s ideally suited for this piece, which will incorporate African-American church music styles into a classical new-music opera. I’d recently wondered what shape a project for her might possibly take. Christine gave me the answer.
To my delight, Tichina also loves the idea. We’re now in the beginning stages of putting together a proposal for several opera companies that she works with regularly.
My main interest in creating this work is to highlight what I consider an extraordinary story within the larger story – of one brave woman who, despite the abusive conditions and manipulation forced upon all at Jonestown, somehow managed to access her own personal wisdom and speak it out loud, even though she knew it would be met with hostility. How many famous American heroes do we have who showed courage in the face of overwhelming odds, refusing to stand by and simply watch something profoundly wrong take place? Several at least. Why should only they be honored and not this woman? In many ways, Christine seems to me to be representative of the higher wisdom brought to Jonestown by each individual there. Just, for whatever reason, she was the one who ended up articulating it that day. I strongly sense that she spoke for everyone there, even those who shouted her down.
Secondarily, another aspect of the Peoples Temple story deeply moves and disturbs me. Here was a leader, Jim Jones, who seemed to start out as a model of progressivism in the late ’50s, adamantly taking an unpopular stance by creating a racially integrated community in the Midwest. As it grew, one of the movement’s principal appeals was as a safe haven against racism, ageism and sexism – which Tim Carter pointed out in a special 30-year retrospective last year. Yet in the end, it’s impossible to ignore that this community, roughly two-thirds black and more than a century after the end of slavery, was led to its destruction by a white man. How horribly ironic is that? Similarly, hundreds of senior citizens, children and feminists who trusted this man were also led over a cliff.
I’m not yet entirely sure how an operatic work can most effectively address that latter issue. Indeed, the best way may be to illustrate it subtly within the overall context, letting the audience make the connection themselves, rather than hitting them over the head with it. But I think it’s an important undercurrent to the tragedy, and can certainly be transmitted in some way.
Overall, however, I want to concentrate on portraying an authentic, powerful human moment, where one person drew upon her own repressed wisdom and acted on it. The central part of Christine’s story is of course her confrontation with Jones on that day. But rather than focus on a literal account of the enormity of the tragedy, I see a final scene that depicts those events symbolically, while showing Christine rising above the circumstances even in death. Again, in that sense she is a proxy for all the victims. I hear her singing a spiritual that we first encountered earlier in the opera, and continuing it a capella after she and the others have fallen, and the orchestra has trickled out. In the end, we’re left with her voice alone – just as in today’s reality, we’re left only with the example of her courage.
(Perry Townsend is a composer based in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would especially like to hear from anyone with ideas about possible spirituals to use in Christine’s final scene. Ideally it should be a spiritual which was actually used in Peoples Temple services, and which would be somewhat familiar to a general audience.