Heaven Down Here is my chamber opera about Peoples Temple which I have written about as it has developed over the years, most recently in the 2015 edition of the jonestown report. In January 2017, the Sacred in Opera Initiative of the National Opera Association featured a discussion and partial performance of Heaven Down Here at the NOA’s annual convention in Santa Barbara, California. This workshop featured an excerpted performance of two scenes for a smaller group of singers. Although there had been a full premiere of the piece three years earlier in Oakland, this year’s performance gave us a chance to focus and fine-tune the material beyond what we had originally done. We rehearsed the music and staging extensively, and the performers were more experienced and better prepared than during the premiere.
I was encouraged by the way this workshop honored our vision in re-exploring the subject. This happened thanks to not only the performance but the discussion that preceded it, during which the chair of the SOI questioned both Megan Meyer, our staging director and choreographer, and me as the composer, librettist and visionary for the work. This conversation about the opera’s inspiration, function and message gave us an opportunity to express our compassion for victims of abuse within communities of faith and the racial justice issues that I hoped to highlight. I got to emphasize the simultaneous beauty and danger inherent to the experimentation that marks both Peoples Temple’s history and the aesthetic of my work. It also gave us an opportunity to explain and clarify some lesser-known details about Peoples Temple, and their political vision that would have enticed several left-leaning people of faith in the audience, and their majority-black racial makeup.
After setting the Heaven Down Here project aside for a while – and beginning to doubt whether it was still a worthwhile piece to perform – the opportunity to fully explain what I was doing turned out to be surprisingly valuable. After the workshop, many members of the audience members expressed appreciation for the work we had done to honor the victims and keep the surrounding issues prominent in their awareness. It was encouraging see how it captivated the audience, which offered intelligent and understanding feedback. They came away feeling both moved and informed. In a year when a dangerous demagogue had become prominent on the national stage, I know that this opera community was grateful for a way to struggle with the issue, and to witness a way that their own discipline could be used to engage it and find healing.
(The website for Heaven Down Here is here. DVDs of the work are available here. Short clips may be found on YouTube, including: the Opening Scene, both here and here; a Temple healing in Scene 2; Jim Jones preaching in Scene 4 here and here; the departure of Peoples Temple to the Promised Land here; and Jim Jones making his case for staying in Jonestown. Andrew Jamieson may be reached at AndrewBarnesJam@gmail.com.)