‘Sara’s Diary, 9/11’

: Soprano Shana Blake Hill. –>

‘Sara’s Diary, 9/11’ sings of a family after tragedy

By Gretchen Giles

As the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks looms, there are myriad ways of reflecting. There is the political, as the GOP showed us recently, working viciously all last week to claim the tragedy as a reflection of their greatest glory. There is the civic, as we all remain New Yorkers to this day. There is the personal, as with those who lost friends, lovers and family members will use the day to mourn.

But for a small group of women, 9-11’s harsh memory is tempered with an aching, daily joy. Those who were pregnant and lost their partners when the attacks came found themselves as unexpected single mothers–most of whose babies are now nearing their third birthdays.

The poignancy of the sudden, horrible loss of a life partner coupled with the deep and binding love of a newborn is a startling juxtaposition that Sonoma County journalist and author Leroy Aarons couldn’t get out of his mind. The former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, Aarons is used to the rough facts of daily life. He is also the author of Prayers for Bobby, a nonfiction account of a gay 15-year-old Petaluma High School student who threw himself from the Golden Gate Bridge after enduring years of harassment. Bobby is soon to be made into a film for Showtime, and its topic is dear to Aarons’ heart as he is himself the founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

But nearing term carrying a child who will never know its father is not a topic Aarons had yet explored. Nor is it one that he had ever set to classical music.

With the Wednesday, Sept. 8, Northern California premiere of Sara’s Diary, 9/11 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Aarons and composer Glenn Paxton will do both. A benefit for KRCB 91.1-FM public radio, Sara’s Diary is a song cycle rather than a full-fledged opera, in which Aaron’s text is sung solo by soprano Shana Blake Hill on a bare stage with no special costumes to the accompaniment of just the piano, performed by Victoria Kirsch. Aarons plans to attend the show, though he is currently recovering from emergency surgery.

Paxton, who worked with Aarons on an operatic treatment of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemmings titled Monticello in 2000, was initially wary. “At first, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this because there are so many feelings about [9-11],'” he says by phone from Los Angeles, where he is in rehearsals on a new musical detailing the love affair between William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. “Though it’s written in verses, it’s basically vernacular. This isn’t the kind of material you usually work with. [Librettos are] usually written in rhyming verse.”

In fact, Aarons’ libretto, which begins with Sara remembering a walk by the ocean with her late husband Jesse two days before the attacks, is almost prose, including notice of Sara’s gourmet meatloaf and Jesse’s love of ketchup. The lyrics recounting the day of the tragedy note that Jesse drove a Toyota to work and that Katie Couric was on TV. The last song in the cycle, dated August 2002, is about the day Sara and Jesse’s baby daughter Jessica walked for the first time.

This is not typical operatic fare by any means.”I thought that Aarons’ text had so much feeling in it,” Paxton says, explaining his decision to collaborate. “It ran the gamut from grief and anger and sorrow until finally something clicked in Sara’s mind.”

Singer Shana Blake Hill was asked to perform in part because Aarons and Paxton worked with her on Monticello and in part because, indeed, of her diction. Paxton scored the music to Hill’s highest and lowest registers, trying to mimic speech patterns in music. “I wanted it to be accessible enough so that it doesn’t bury the words,” he says. “The words are as important here as in a musical. It’s not like in a lot classical pieces–you often don’t have to understand them. But I cannot see people who cannot understand the language being sung being able to enjoy this. It’s all about words.”

With a performance piece like this, each artist must contribute months of effort to the project. Sara’s Diary required huge creative effort, but has so far only been staged twice. Paxton acknowledges what he terms the ephemeral nature of such work, noting that attending a performance so rarely mounted gives a special quality to the work, a once-in-a-lifetime presentation that is perfect and fleeting.

“It is,” he says with a somewhat rueful chuckle, “exactly like a sand painting.”

‘Sara’s Diary, 9/11’ premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 8, at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Arias from ‘Monticello’ end the evening. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. 7:30pm. $17-$20 (benefits KRCB). 707.588.3400.

From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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