We Shall Not Be Moved-The Apollo Theater, October 5, 2017, Apollo Theater, Dress rehearsal.” Photo by Steven Pisano.

June 18, 2018; Philadelphia Inquirer

For the last several years, Opera Philadelphia has kicked off its season with a gift to the city: a free, outdoor, high-definition broadcast of one of its productions, typically from the classical repertoire, in a family-friendly, festive atmosphere with Independence Hall as its backdrop. This September, Opera on The Mall will be back—but with a new commission “that blends jazz, classical, hip-hop, and other genres to explore racism and social justice.” The production is inspired by the 1985 bombing by the city of the MOVE compound and refracted through the lens of today’s youth. While the event will remain free to the public, a crowdfunding campaign is underway to raise $25,000 to close a funding gap in the $160,000 cost to bring We Shall Not Be Moved to Independence Mall.

If you don’t recall the MOVE bombing, you are not alone, as noted in this NPR report just after the 30th anniversary of the incident. It was a shocking and galvanizing event in which, following a long standoff between the city and members of the radical black power group known as MOVE, the mayor authorized the bombing of an entire city block. It left a West Philadelphia neighborhood in ruins and killed 11 people, including five children. At the time, it garnered national headlines. We Shall Not Be Moved tells the story of five contemporary young people from North Philadelphia who move into an abandoned, condemned house in the same place where the bombing occurred.

Opera Philadelphia has steadily built its reputation over the last decade as one of the top-tier companies in the world for commissioning (and co-commissioning) new works. In 2017, the nonprofit company launched its new programming model, with an ambitious—and wildly successful—fall festival called O17. But when plans for O18 were announced this spring, the annual Opera on the Mall event was still a question mark, as reported by Peter Dobrin in the Philadelphia Inquirer. This week, the crowdfunding campaign was launched, and with $135,000 now secured in corporate support and from individual donors, Opera on the Mall will be part of O18; if the crowdfunding campaign falls short, the company may need to “cut some corners,” but will not cut out the event.

We Shall Not Be Moved is described on the Opera Philadelphia website as follows:

Combining spoken word, contemporary movement, video projection, classical, R&B and jazz singing, and a brooding, often joyful score filled with place, purpose, and possibility, We Shall Not Be Moved is a timely exploration of past and present struggles which suggests an alternate future through the eyes of its young protagonists. Co-commissioned and co-produced with The Apollo Theater and Hackney Empire. Developed in partnership with Art Sanctuary.

Art Sanctuary is a nonprofit arts group in Philadelphia that “uses the power of black art to transform individuals, create and build community and foster cultural understanding.” Since 2007, Art Sanctuary and Opera Philadelphia have collaborated on an education program for young people called Hip H’opera. In 2013, student writings from that program became the inspiration for the new chamber opera, with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directing and choreography by Bill T. Jones. The students from Art Sanctuary had the opportunity to work with these artists as the piece was developed. We Shall Not Be Moved had its world premiere during O17 at the Wilma Theater, then moved on to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, it was presented by Dutch National Opera; as noted on the crowdfunding page, the reception there “proved that this timely, Philadelphia-based work could also find relevance with the wider international community.”

Opera Philadelphia general director and president David Devan notes that one of the reasons We Shall Not Be Moved was chosen for this year’s Opera on the Mall is that it did so well at O17—seven sold-out performances—that many people who wanted to see it could not get tickets. He also noted that while the music will be unfamiliar to most of the audience, it is accessible, and the work’s arias—including “Love is the only word sweeter than black,” have “the same earworm quality as a standard opera aria.”

The video that will be projected at Opera on the Mall on September 29 was recorded during O17. The Kickstarter page includes brief excerpts from the video, and carries this tagline for the event: “We ask: ‘For whom America the beautiful?’ in the shadow of the Liberty Bell.”—Eileen Cunniffe