“In no time, no time at all, Antonia, you will be where I am. Standing on the deck of a boat approaching a new land, approaching America.” — Mark Campbell, librettist, from A Nation of Others
On November 15, 2022, the Oratorio Society of New York offers the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec’s new choral work A Nation of Others, conducted by Kent Tritle.Commissioned by the ensemble, Moravec’s 15-movement work is written for six soloists, male sextet, SATB chorus and orchestra, and features texts set by Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell. (Moravec and Campbell were previously commissioned by The Oratorio Society of New York to create the critically acclaimed oratorio Sanctuary Road – which is based on the writings of the Philadelphia-born, historic Underground Railroad figure William Still.) A Nation of Others explores the experiences of immigrants—many of them also refugees—arriving at Ellis Island on a single day in 1921. Individual stories of people from Sicily, Ukraine, Ireland, Sweden, Poland, Armenia, and Spain show the struggles immigrants often face, but also celebrate the fusion of diverse cultures that give America its identity.
Moravec (who calls himself “a sort of Method composer”) set about composing A Nation of Others by imagining being immersed in the lives of the oratorio’s characters and their shared experiences of leaving their homeland and arriving by boat in New York, as well as examining with their differences. Moravec notes, “Mark Campbell, of course, did the actual storytelling. When we received this commission from the OSNY, it was Mark’s idea to do something about immigration, but it was mine to do it about Ellis Island. [Mark] chose one particular day in 1921 because it was during one of the last years that the facility was in full operation; it was after World War I (WWI), when the country was becoming more isolationist…Remember, we never joined the League of Nations and it was all part of the vibe then, including restrictions on immigration…Many of the stories we used have to do with the dislocations of WWI, the trauma in its aftermath: Armenia, Ukraine, the British oppression in Ireland…Clearly, the people in the story came here under duress…[and let’s not forget] we think our Covid pandemic has been bad—and as bad as it has been—at least 50 million people were killed worldwide by the Spanish flu, with almost 700,00 in the US alone.”
Moravec continues. “The first thing I did was to make the trip to Ellis Island. It was astounding to think that my grandfather came through there in 1907 on his own, when he was 16 years-old and didn’t speak the language. I tried to imagine myself, traveling alone and arriving in a country I knew nothing about. I couldn’t even begin to picture what it was like for him. He must have been terrified. For all of the promise and hope of this new life, it must have been pretty awful, coming over here but not really knowing where he was going to end up. [Moravec’s grandfather settled in Buffalo, New York, where the composer himself was born.] So, understanding that aspect of the immigrant experience, or trying to imagine it through accounts that were available, was crucial to getting my arms around what we were trying to do…For us, the idea that A Nation of Others takes place on a single day, in a single place, gives it unity….[and by] compressing the experience, you feel that the audience is experiencing these stories simultaneously.”
For more details about A Nation of Others, visit the Oratorio Society of New York’s website here; and to listen to and read a short interview featuring both Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell talk about their new work, click here.