Heaven Down Here at NOA Convention
I am a composer and pianist focused on both avant-garde experimentation and gospel music. My chamber opera, Heaven Down Here, explores Jim Jones’ San Francisco Peoples Temple.
Peoples Temple is best known for its tragic end. Over 1000 members, led by Jim Jones, left their San Francisco headquarters and other California locations for Jonestown, Guyana, a commune founded by the Temple, in August 1977. On November 18, 1978, 909 of the residents were killed, most from cyanide-laced Flavor-aid. The massacre shocked many who had worked with the Temple. Jones, a white pastor, reached out to the poor, elderly and African-Americans. They formed a community based on socialist ideals and vibrant Pentecostal worship. Jones and his members were also on the forefront of political activism.
Like Jones and many Temple members, I am a left-leaning Christian, familiar with Pentecostal worship, and passionate about racial and economic justice. This project allows me to meditate on the story through music, to avoid repeating his mistakes. Furthermore, our nation finds itself faced with the prospect of a new charismatic leader cultivating unprecedented power, with his own passionate and hopeful followers, which could have potentially catastrophic consequences.
The work depicts two worship services in a re-imagined “last day” in the San Francisco Temple before the mass-exodus to Guyana. In the moment between them, Jones decides the Temple is threatened, and they must escape.
Music is derived from African American Pentecostal worship music, a familiar sound to Temple Members. Spirituals and community songs are quoted directly. This style is infused with experimental harmonies and avant-garde improvisation, mirroring the radical and provocative theology Temple members hoped to embody. The libretto is compiled from Peoples Temple transcripts and other sources. It was premiered June 25th at First Congregational Church of Oakland, CA, and performed again June 28th.
I have been selected by the Sacred in Opera Initiative of the National Opera Association to present excerpts from Heaven Down Here at the NOA National Convention in Santa Barbara, California on January 5, 2017. My presentation will consist of a performance of scenes, followed by a discussion explaining the experience of the work’s production process.
Three singers, the staging director, and I will each have a $300.00 travel stipend. The staging director and singers will receive an additional $200.00 honorarium for the performance. The staging director and I are required to register for the conference, at a cost of $395 each. We will also reserve $50.00 available for basic prop and costume expenses. The SIO has $350 available to contribute toward expenses for the presentation.
It was amazing to be a part of that conversation. Megan Meyer and I were interviewed at the beginning of the session, and got to discuss the ways we hoped to generate empathy for Peoples Temple members, and anyone who finds themselves taken advantage of be religious leaders and communities.
After the performance, I thought that the audience really got it, and opera singers, teachers and directors commented to me about how much they appreciated the experience. We were able to compensate the singers for their work and travel, although their work was worth even more. I have a few pictures from the cast, and I will post more pictures/media as they become available (and also any updates about the piece itself) at AndrewBarnesJamieson.com/heaven-down-here
This would not have been possible without all of you. I just wanted to thank you for your support.
I have been amazed by the interpretation by our cast this time, and look forward to a powerful experience at the National Opera Convention in a few weeks!