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INTERVIEW: Venessa Fuentes and Dameun Strange on Mother King

The cast of Mother King in rehearsal. 

Alberta King’s death made the front page of newspapers around the world.

On the 1st of July 1974, an organist at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, was shot and killed by a deranged man who burst into the sanctuary. The victim, Alberta Christine Williams King, was an active church leader and NAACP member, the founder of EBC’s choir, and the parish organist for 40 years. She was also the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr. and an important figure in her own right in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Her story is the focus of Mother King, a new opera by Venessa Fuentes and Dameun Strange that premieres at Public Functionary in Minneapolis on July 20.

The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine caught up with Fuentes and Strange to discuss the creation of this conceptual Black opera.

How did this project begin? What gave you the idea to write an opera focused on Alberta Williams King?

VF: The project began a long time ago, actually. Dameun had wanted to write an opera based on MLK Jr’s life, and carried the idea around with him for years. Meanwhile, I’d been an opera admirer who was curious about how librettos were written. It wasn’t until the two of us met officially in 2014 that we teamed up to take on Alberta’s story — an under-told story we agreed needed illuminating.

Musical director Mischa Santora and composer Dameun Strange discuss the score.
DS: This is true, I had been wanting to write an opera for many years but never found a story that inspired me enough to stick with it. About a decade ago, I made a decision that all of my work that wasn’t commissioned would focus on the history and culture of the African Diaspora or Astronomy/Astrophysics. I thought that it would be great to tell the story of the last months of MLK’s life in an opera and so I set to work on that in 2012, after a few attempts at composing a libretto, the project had started to stall and after a conversation about Duvernay’s Selma, Venessa and I thought it would be a great idea to lift up a woman in the civil rights movement, a story that many may not know.

How did your collaboration originate? Had you worked with each other prior?

VF: We both went to Macalester College around the same time, but didn’t become good friends until 2014. We were both part of the inaugural cohort of the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship, which placed us in program associate roles at the Bush Foundation. That’s when we started getting to know each other as colleagues, then artists, and now good friends. That’s how OperaWorks 52 was born.

The cast of Mother King.
DS: I had actually seen Venessa read before, at Bao Phi‘s house in the late 1990’s but as she said we didn’t reconnect until 2014. It’s funny how life works out. We will probably be doing work together until we are much older and greyer.

You had a performance of the opera scheduled at the Matthews Opera House & Arts Center in March. Has the score or libretto evolved since then? How does the version of the opera (and its staging) that will be presented via Opera Works 52 compare to that earlier performance?

​DS: We actually did not perform at Matthews Opera house. Mother King was supposed to premiere in February – we were really hoping to have it open during Black History month – but the venue at which we were to present the opera lost its lease, Bedlam closed its doors in early November (a real failure of Joe Spencer and the City of Saint Paul and a big loss for experimental artists) and that sent us scrambling to find a new location.

Ava McFarlane (Coretta Scott King), Sarah Greer (Jennie Celeste Williams), and Roland Hawkins (Alfred Daniel Williams King I) examine the script.

I had been in talks with Public Functionary about bring some future work there; they were kind enough to offer their venue for Mother King, but only had openings for the summer. So we pushed back the opening.

Because we really wanted to premier this version of the opera in the Twin Cities, we cancelled our tour to South Dakota. We do hope to tour a version of Mother King at some point in the near future.

What are some of the forms and idioms used in the libretto and the score? Is the libretto in prose, poetry, etc? What style(s) of music is used?

​VF: ​I wrote a series of narrative poems based on the limited information I could find on Alberta’s life. I read “Through it All: Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith” by Christine Farris King, MLK Jr’s sister. I also did some digging around on the King Center’s archives. The poems, and by extension the libretto, broadly interpret Alberta’s story; Dameun and I plan to tell a more in-depth story after we finish this first staging of Mother King.​

Kevin Moore (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Liz Gre (Alberta King) in rehearsal.

DS:​ The idea of genre is so interesting to me.  When people ask me a question [about it], I usually make up something/some word because I don’t think of my music in that way. How about post-art music. Or how about Polyrhythmic Complex Metered Art music with Jazz Phrasing and making use of tone rows (though the music is not quite atonal) and/or extended tonality.

I use leit motifs throughout opera representing claiming, belonging, triumph, joy, and disruption. There are certainly motifs that I hope one might be able to sing or hum as they are walking out the door.

Is the libretto written in free verse, rhymed or rhythmic speech, etc? 

VF: At first, I tried writing poems with a fully-staged opera in mind. That immediately felt too overwhelming and outside of my familiar, so I decided to stick to how I normally write poems. As OperaWorks 52 grows, I’m confident my skills as a librettist will, too. For today, though, I’m “just” a poet. That said, the poems that inform Mother King’s libretto are written in a narrative style. Some take on a prose feel, like MLK Jr’s letter to Alberta. Others are free verse…I typically don’t write using rhyme, at least not intentionally.

DS: I honestly did not want Venessa to think of a conventional libretto. From the very beginning, I had hoped for something more conceptual, to take this first opera in a more experimental direction. I felt this would let Venessa be herself and shine a light on her brilliant wordsmithing.

What was the process like for writing the libretto and the score – has this been a cooperative back-and-forth with changes on both ends, handing off a finished product, etc?

DS: We did create together in parallel tracks; as Venessa was composing her poems, I was composing music. I ask Venessa for themes she was considering as she wrote, which I then focused on as I created my tone rows and liet motifs. You can hear this exploration with her themes in the overture of the opera which was the basis for the rest of the music in the subsequent acts.

Dameun Strange looks on in rehearsal.

VF: Once I finished writing the poems, I handed them over to Dameun, who wrote the full libretto and score from there. It worked perfectly for our first project. I’m excited to see how our collaborative styles might shift over time.

DS: In constructing the libretto, I would pull lines from the poems Venessa composed to create the dialogue between the characters. Lines from the poems are often repeated and those lines have new meanings depending where they are placed in relation to lines from a different character’s poem. It was another experiment in composition and I’d say we are quite pleased with the results.

Mother King opens July 20 at Public Functionary in Minneapolis, MN, and plays through July 29.

Basil Considine