Words Fail: Reflections on Writing
Jonestown: A Multimedia Chamber Opera

evan williamsI’m not sure when the first time I learned about Jonestown was. As a kid who loved to watch the History Channel, it was probably through a documentary while I was in high school. I do, however, know when Jonestown reentered my consciousness. It was the summer of 2008.

Home from college and bored, I watched a lot of news coverage of the historic presidential election. One phrase I kept hearing over and over from critics of Barack Obama was that his supporters were “drinking the Kool-Aid.” I was curious about this phrase. At first, I thought it was one of the many racially-charged phrases that are a part of our American psyche, insinuating that African-Americans had a penchant for Kool-Aid. The true answer, of course, is much more offensive. The reference to the events at Jonestown not only belittles the tragedy, but its application to the first African-American President is particularly disappointing, given that the majority of followers of Jim Jones were also Black. Yet despite my anger at the use of this phrase, my second thought was that the story of this event would make a powerful opera. It didn’t hurt that I was working on my first operatic work at the time, The Fall of the House of Usher.

When choosing this subject matter and writing the libretto, I continually questioned if I was exploiting this tragedy for artistic gain. The most honest answer is “yes.” I have no connection to these events, and therefore no real reason or “right” to use this story for an opera. Yet while I had no actual connections to the people and events of Jonestown, I feel an emotional one to them. As a young African-American with strong left-wing politics who once held strong religious beliefs from being raised in the Pentecostal tradition, I can’t help but wonder if I would have been a prime recruiting target for Peoples Temple. Would Jones’ integrationist and socialist message have persuaded me to travel on the bus caravan to California or on the plane to Guyana?

In addition, I think of the words from the letter attributed to Jonestown’s resident historian Dick Tropp written on the last day at Jonestown: “Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions. Words fail.” While this story does not “need” my opera to live on, perhaps music can add to its understanding where words may fail.

For members of my generation, Jonestown is all but forgotten. The most common response I get from telling people about the event is “Oh, I’ve heard something about that. They were the people with the Kool-Aid, right?” Yet this is a story that can and must speak to us today. The struggle for racial equality is not yet over, income inequality is at an all time high, and as a sign in the main pavilion of Jonestown read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

With these thoughts in mind, I decided my opera would be centered on the hope the people of Jonestown had to build a better community for themselves. Like others who have made musical works from this story, my opera focuses on Christine Miller as its main character. Throughout the opera, she reflects on her strong sense of hope, leading to her famous protest captured on the final audiotape, “as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.” The other two main characters are Joe and Mary, a husband and wife from California whose relationship has become strained by their differences regarding Peoples Temple, and by Joe’s suspicion that his son might not actually be his, but Jones’. While elements of their story is pulled from various historical accounts – including a custody battle which set in motion the events of November 18 – these two characters are fictional.

There are no roles for Jim Jones or Rep. Leo Ryan. Instead, audio generously provided by the Jonestown Institute will be used throughout the opera, presenting Jones’ words directly from him. Finally, the people of Jonestown are represented by a chorus, which recites – often deliberately inaccurate – quotes from the Bible or Marxist thinkers, reflecting the group’s religious and political beliefs.

Other religious aspects are clearly evident throughout the opera. The similarities between Joe, Mary, and their child to that of the Nativity story are no coincidence. In addition, the themes of “faith, hope, and love” appear throughout the work. The chorus often recites an article of faith in Jones or Communism, followed by reflection of Christine’s hope, and finally a demonstration of the fading love between Joe and Mary.

In the end, the opera offers no commentary about any of these subjects. It is not a denouncement of religion, Communism, or even Jim Jones. It is a tragedy of a people who sought a better life for themselves, who wanted to change the world, but who followed the wrong person. And while the opera may seem to have a nihilist view on the hope of this group, it actually shows that it is in tragedy that the human spirit and hope shine the brightest. This is exemplified by an epilogue in which the Tropp letter provides the text for an aria for Christine’s character. “Someone must find the symbolic, the eternal in this moment,” she says, “the meaning of a people, a struggle. These are a beautiful people, a brave people, not afraid.”

Jonestown: A Multimedia Chamber Opera is a work in progress. It will be completed as my dissertation for doctoral studies in composition at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, with a planned performance at CCM sometime in late 2015 or early 2016.

(To learn more about Evan Williams, please visit www.evanwilliamsmusic.info.)