Associate Professor Malcolm Merriweather and Adjunct Assistant Professor Laquita Mitchell performed in lauded musical work based on the writings of abolitionist William Still. 

In the shadow of the widely-told story of Harriet Tubman, who brought more than a thousand people to freedom during the era of American slavery, is that of William Still, another African-American abolitionist whose home in Philadelphia acted as a terminus for many of the formerly enslaved on the Underground Railroad. The stories of enslavement and eventual escape told to Still by those who found their way to freedom were eventually published in 1872 in The Underground Railroad: A Record. Set to music by Pulitzer-prize winning composer Paul Moravec, a number of the book’s narratives form the basis for the libretto of the live recording of the Grammy-nominated Sanctuary Road (Naxos, 2020). We spoke to Associate Professor Malcolm Merriweather, director of Choruses and coordinator of Voice Studies and Laquita Mitchell, adjunct professor of Voice at Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music, about being a part of the—in many ways—groundbreaking oratorio.

Malcolm Merriweather (MM): The most evocative thing about this oratorio is that each of the soloists in it portrays an actual person. These stories are a death struggle, a struggle for freedom. But one thing that the libretto portrays is the struggle and the triumph, the hopefulness. The story of Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself up north to freedom, is a story of desperation beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It’s also an instance of someone who is so clever and so tenacious—a man who conceived of and planned his escape meticulously, paid people to be a part of his plan, and accomplished his goal.

He spent 23 hours on a train. Then from a train to a boat, and then to a carriage, finally reaching Philadelphia. As I sang the aria, I could feel those landscape changes. I think that’s a huge credit to the composer Paul Moravec. Of course, that’s his job: to orally illustrate what the characters are feeling. I think the Henry “Box” Brown story, his account, is very evocative. For me, the showstopper comes at the end—Laquita’s role.

Laquita Mitchell (LM): I sing different characters throughout, but the woman who sings “Rain” did not exist; she was drawn from the real-life William Still narrative. The understanding is that this woman has finally escaped and finally found a place of freedom in Canada and it begins to rain. She feels like it’s a baptism. The rain has washed away the dogs at her heels, and all of these things she suffered. I saw the words and asked, “why is he [the librettist Mark Campbell] writing this? What does this have to do with the rest of the piece?” As I heard all the other stories unfold, I realized that this was the cleansing that we all, as performers and as the audience, needed.

MM: Being a part of the production as a soloist [Merriweather sang baritone, Mitchell soprano] and hearing the journey, the emotion, and the clarity you brought to this unnamed character; the collective tears and the collective sigh of relief for all of the characters. You have originated this aria, “Rain.” You’re the only person who has sung it, and it is just so touching.

LM: We recorded for maybe about four and a half hours, five hours, with two hours off. And then we did the live performance. From what I understand, the cuts that are on the recording are from the live performance. That’s after waking up early in the morning, getting to Carnegie Hall, singing for a recording. Back in the days when they did recording projects, you’d get a good week to do it. That they used the edits from the live recording says something about what we as performers were feeling as we sang, because it comes through on the recording.

MM: To bring it back to “Rain,” this solo comes at the end of that movement. And I think that’s on purpose, too, to show that collective struggle and triumph and relief. That’s my favorite moment because it is an emotional journey. You have these emotions that have built up. People are running from slavery, people are mailing themselves in boxes, and they’re concealing their identity. So that moment is my favorite when that oboe comes in at the beginning of the fifteenth movement. And then Laquita comes in with the first words, and then we all come in as a quartet.

LM: In the end, we, as the characters we portray and as the performers representing those characters, all made it through. I can imagine that feeling of homecoming. That’s a feeling that all of us will have as this pandemic subsides. I’m a New Yorker, but my family is in different parts of the country. And there’s something to be said about being parted from your family, for whatever reasons. I come from immigrants, some of whom came to the United States from Panama. My aunt had to stay behind in Panama so that my grandmother could get things set up for the family. They came to Canada first, and then to the United States. When I was singing those words in “Rain,” I thought about my grandmother and my mom and that feeling of separation.

MM: Can I digress? This wouldn’t be an authentic interview if I didn’t share my “rose and my thorn” with this Grammy nomination. I never thought about the endurance Laquita and I and all of the soloists needed for the piece until Laquita went through the day of the performance, hour by hour for us, on a group chat with the soloists. There are 128 pages in the choral vocal score, and whether we were performing as a soloist, duet, trio, or all five of us together, we sang on 106 of those pages. We were the core of this piece. We were kind of the essential workers of this oratorio.

If this was before the cultural shift that our country is going through, I don’t know if I would have even shared this. But I think it’s important to note that in all of its beauty and all of its grandeur—and Sanctuary Road is undoubtedly an important story to tell—we still have far to go. The composer is White. The librettist is White. The choir is mostly White. The conductor is White. And when we look and think about the historical and the ongoing racial bias against Black people in classical music. For instance, we know that there are worthy conductors and Black ensembles, past and present, that have recorded; neither has been recognized by the Academy. So, along with feeling joy at being nominated, Laquita and I are inspired to advance the presence and the recognition of Black and Brown people in classical music.

LM: In the end, I never thought I’d hear my name read on a Grammy nomination. But it’s not necessarily me who is being recognized. It’s all of those people who are the unsung heroes of this country. I feel like I’ve already won because at their stories are being recognized, and people are talking about what happened to them.

MM: I have to give thanks for the ability to collaborate with an artist such as Laquita Mitchell, who has sung world-wide and is from Flatbush. It is an honor that she’s a part of our faculty. I am also so grateful to composer Paul Moravec, librettist Mark Campbell, and the Oratorio Society of New York, and conductor Ken Tritle for their roles in bringing these stories of the Underground Railroad to life in the 21st century.