Liberty libretto 

New original opera No Justice, No Peace confronts and empathizes with the traumatic margins of police violence with forthcoming world premiere.

click to enlarge Lorenzo Butler and Kayla Marshall perform No Justice, No Peace at the 2022 Festival of the Arts.

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Lorenzo Butler and Kayla Marshall perform No Justice, No Peace at the 2022 Festival of the Arts.

The phrase “no justice, no peace” has become such a commonplace call-and-response chant in Oklahoma City protest marches over the past few years that it has become as shorthanded as “Boomer Sooner” in some circles. Though not a new saying, it carries the baggage of polarized present-day discourse due to its renewed popularization alongside the Black Lives Matter movement. For some, “no justice, no peace” is just bumper sticker rhetoric that only functions to stereotype its speaker as purely progressive and therefore anti-conservative. However, while politics is often abbreviated as a two-party game, people are more than dots on a field, and that is what the new opera No Justice, No Peace aims to convey by rediscovering the deeper, three-dimensional meaning of its titular phrase.

No Justice, No Peace engages with the effects of police violence in ways that are oftentimes neglected,” Chris Prather, music composer, librettist, and producer, said. “What was the family’s life like before and after one of these tragic situations? We get so caught up in the politicization of this issue we fail to see the humanity that is lost, the families that are changed forever, and the lives that are taken away.”

Composed as a one-act work with an approximate 90-minute runtime, No Justice, No Peace takes place in Oklahoma and follows the fictional Benson family. While the production has been tight-lipped about plot developments, it has announced that the six-character opera centers around the father and son grieving the loss of their matriarch, some of which is expressed through therapy sessions. How exactly the police become involved will not be revealed until the opera’s world premiere run of performances.

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Without any major sponsors, No Justice, No Peace is a collaborative grassroots effort hoping to break even through fundraising and ticket sales. It has partnered with OKC’s chapter of Opera on Tap, an international non-profit dedicated to making opera more accessible, for professional assistance in the production. While the association has helped the project come to life, the art form’s reputation for being elitist and out-of-touch has still kept grassroots resources scarce.

“Opera is marginalized in the states and can often seem culturally irrelevant to the average American,” Danielle Herrington, founder of Opera on Tap OKC, said. “We hope this incredibly relevant topic of No Justice, No Peace, and its local perspective will show opera is being reimagined.”

For a historically Eurocentric art form whose past is tainted with figures like Richard Wagner, a groundbreaking composer who was also a notorious racist, this is no small task, but the production believes in the challenge. At every stage, it has made strides to diversify its voice and democratize its concept.

“From top to bottom there has been collaboration with everything in this production,” librettist Kenneth R. Woods said. “We wanted everybody involved to be comfortable with every decision that was made, every idea we had, and be able to express themselves when they had ideas.

“Also there was a lot of community involvement. We conducted interviews with individuals, and last August, we did a workshop where we invited the community to come watch a performance of the opera for free, and afterwards, we had a talkback and took feedback from the audience which helped us in our revision process.”

No Justice, No Peace also sounds far more contemporary than the average opera. By including 20th-century music cultures like blues and gospel, it reaches well beyond the classical world, and it doesn’t stop there. It promises to carry a unique sonic fingerprint thanks to composer Chris Prather’s striking myriad of influences.

“Musically, this opera takes inspiration from classical music, blues, and commercial music from film/video games, including artists like Nina Simone, Benjamin Britten, Billie Holiday, Yoshihisa Hirano, Igor Stravinisky, John Williams, Jake Heggie, and this super obscure JRPG game from my childhood that no one will know by composers Takeo Miratsu and Dennis Martin,” Prather said.

The opera also includes spoken dialogue which goes against the stereotypical sing-speak of classical operatic works. While Herrington noted that this is an overgeneralization — only traditional Italian opera strictly adheres to singing — the decision to write and perform natural speech is essential to No Justice, No Peace. It not only gives the story a more approachable structure to general audiences, but it also extends its expressive range.

“We felt that having spoken words versus sung-through added to the drama and realism of the story,” Prather said. “This is especially present during the scene involving an officer encounter. We wanted that scene to be as realistic as possible which led us to having spoken dialogue there and eventually throughout the opera.”

When creating a fictional narrative focused on controversial national events, that realism is important to avoid the pitfalls of polarized discourse. Some may read this opera as leftist by its premise alone, and others may read it as centrist for not claiming to be leftist. However, No Justice, No Peace ultimately wants to be heard and seen not for any political agenda but for a more authentic representation of human lives.

“Writing this opera has been quite the balancing act,” Prather said. “We wanted to create a story and characters that feel very real so that every line that is sung or spoken feels like it is coming from that character instead of it coming across like a character is spouting the writer’s beliefs and opinions. I find that heavy-handed moments like that take you out of the story when what you want to feel is immersed.”

While the stakes are higher, operas like No Justice, No Peace have more to offer for the extra care taken in their development. They have the potential to take conscious observation or even verbalization to a higher level of empathy. Where street protesters often chant in honor of victims to say their names, opera offers the invaluable ability to feel their experiences.

No Justice, No Peace runs June 24-26, at The Yale Theater in OKC’s Capitol Hill District. General admission is $30 with a $10 discount for students. Reserved front-row seating with a pre-show meet and greet is $40.

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Evan Jarvicks

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