Opera to Revolve Around Temple Church Services

I am a pianist and composer in Oakland, California, beginning a music-theater composition based on the story of Peoples Temple. I hope to use this project to honor and celebrate the victims, and help warn all of us about the dangers in a situation like theirs. Since music connects us with the emotion of a situation in a way few other media can, a musical work can also offer a new perspective. I have felt a unique personal connection to the story as long as I have known about it. Like Jim Jones, I identify with both Pentecostalism and work for social justice. As a white gospel pianist who spent more than three years working for black congregations in the Chicago area, racial issues are particularly important to me. At these churches, I witnessed racial inequality firsthand and struggled to understand my own role in it. I now play for two Bay Area congregations, both of which attracted me with their emphasis on progressive politics. Both are affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, the Peoples Temple’s denomination.

From this perspective, I identify with much of what the Temple seemed to have believed in and achieved. I am beginning to think that if I lived a little earlier I may have ended up in Peoples Temple myself. I was disappointed and concerned to learn how tragic the end was, and struggle with the ways that the flaws of the movement might show up in my own passions or behavior.

Since much of the way that I understand and interact with the world is through music, I know that it will be helpful to wrestle with these issues in a musical way. As a graduate music student at Mills College, I am working to synthesize contemporary classical and experimental music with the sounds, techniques, and spirit of gospel music. I am finding that the racial and political tension between these musical traditions mirrors the tension I see within Peoples Temple, and am using this project as a way of exploring and highlighting that tension.

My plan is to portray a single day of worship that represents an imaginary “last day” for the Temple in San Francisco before so many of its members moved to Guyana. I would depict two worship services with a meeting in between. My goal is to convey the compelling vision that the Temple had, the understandable desire to escape the oppressive world in which it exists, and the dangers inherent to their unique community dynamic. I am currently reading through transcripts of sermons and other Temple documents, which will be the source for most of my text, and learning songs that would have been familiar to Temple members, to find an appropriate musical sound for the work. I will finish both of these shortly, and begin a libretto and setting it to music. The work will be lightly staged for around ten singers, accompanied by a jazz-style rhythm section and wind instruments. I will spend the next twelve to eighteen months composing, and am aiming for a performance in early to mid-2014.

I would love to hear from anyone who finds my project interesting, especially if they have experience with the Temple, or who has experience with other artistic projects on this topic and can offer me advice. I especially hope to hear from someone with thoughts about what to do or not do when portraying and interpreting the situation sensitively. If you might be interested in collaborating with me in the creation or production of this composition, I would also love to hear from you.

(Andrew Barnes Jamieson can be reached at andrewbarnesjam@gmail.com.)