by John Stoltenberg

Appomattox, the magnificent and powerful opera by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton that premiered at The Kennedy Center last night, looks at American history with a breathtaking urgency and relevance. I am trying to think of major works of musical theater that come close, and I can’t.

There are many story arcs through which the history of America has been told on stage in musicals: America as melting pot, America as land of opportunity, America as birthed in idealism and conceived in liberty, America as home to religious freedom… The list of meta-narratives goes on, and there are excellent examples of each.

Until Appomattox, however, the musical stage has never told a story that—as its raison d’être—takes a brutally honest look at America’s brutal race problem.

To tell this story compactly, Appomattox focuses on what Glass has called “the potent combination of suffrage and race.” Act One takes place during Lincoln’s administration and centers on the Civil War and its aftermath—the fight to abolish slavery and to obtain for former slaves the right to vote. Act Two takes place during LBJ’s administration and centers on passage of the Civil Rights Act and the struggle for voting rights. Within this astute framework, Appomattox takes us directly into the emotional heart of events and incidents that tell hard truths, with no romantic gloss, about the racist hate and violence that persist today.

“The argument of the piece,” Glass told an interviewer, “is that the war [the Civil War] never ended.” As a lyric line near the end of Act One puts it, “I thought this was the ending of a struggle but it was just the beginning.”

An ensemble of all the women in the cast gives voice to a deeply affecting throughline. In a prolog the women sing of suffering and sorrow. In an epilog they return to sing, as if to history, of the critical and spiritual challenge ahead: “It is for us to take the world you left and to transform it completely.” What transpires in between thus becomes the musical and theatrical equivalent of that which impelled the struggle to free slaves and the civil rights movement—a passion that was intrinsically both political and devout.

In all the current contretemps concerning church-state separation (of which there are plenty), that core feature of American history often gets overlooked—perhaps to our peril. A conservatism that seems to want theocracy is properly anathema. But a liberalism that seems unwelcoming to believers is also wrongheaded. The lesson of American history (as Appomattox makes vivid) is unequivocal: revolution need not be shorn of faith.

I say this as a know-nothing about opera. I also say this as someone so lapsed I am religiously a nothing. I say this solely as someone fortunate to see and hear on stage a sumptuous and sublime production of one of the most important works of musical theater for our time:

Appomattox sings a hymn to freedom and an anthem to save America.