John P. Parker was larger than life, a slave who bought his freedom at the age of 18 in 1845 and moved to Ripley, Ohio, where he became the owner of a successful ironworks factory.
Many of his inventions were patented, and he raised a large family. And then there was his night job: For 15 years he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and many consider him to be one of the leading forces in bringing slaves to freedom.
Parker's story was monumental but largely unknown until his autobiography, His Promised Land, was discovered and published in 1996. Several years later, when Cincinnati Opera commissioned an opera for family audiences based on a local hero in the Underground Railroad, Parker was the obvious choice. Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story, with music by Adolphus Hailstork and libretto by David Gonzalez, has its world premiere Saturday at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.
With a cast of 22 singers and a 17-piece orchestra from the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, Rise for Freedom might more properly be called grand family opera. But at 45 minutes, it's also family friendly.
The story follows Parker's mission to bring a family from Kentucky across the Ohio River, a challenge delivered by a drunken customer who dares Parker to commandeer his slaves. Aided by the people of Ripley, Parker succeeds in freeing the McDowells but not before confronting immense obstacles and moments of self-doubt.
Gonzalez was tapped after Cincinnati Opera staff saw him perform Finding North, written for the opening of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
"We didn't need much consultation," Hailstork says. "I could see from David's work that his approach was very musical and dramatic. All I told him was to give me songs to set, and he did."
A prolific composer, Hailstork's works have been performed by orchestras and choruses around the world, including the Cincinnati May Festival, which commissioned and performed Done Made My Vow in 2005. Joshua's Boots, a 2002 commission from the Opera Theater of St. Louis and the Kansas City Lyric Opera, was his first opera targeted for family audiences, its protagonist an African-American cowboy.
Hailstork insists that shorter works with accessible story lines aren't limited to families.
"This is a new concept in the opera world, broadening the approach," he says. "Rise for Freedom has more depth and challenge than Joshua's Boots, both in its music and its story. I love every single note and word."
Hailstork's sentiment is shared by Terry Cook, the lanky baritone who sings the role of John Parker.
An internationally acclaimed singer, Cook has performed in major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe. Parker is a meaty role, onstage for virtually the entire 45 minutes, and the music conveys his fears, doubts and triumphs.
"There is such beautiful music," Hailstork says. "One of the arias, "I Made Me a Man," is something I'll sing in recitals. The chorus' music sends chills up my spine, and the final chorus ... you have to see it to believe it."
Cook knew nothing about Parker before receiving the score, nor did director Sheila Ramsey.
"Parker's not afraid to make that commitment at a time when standing up was putting your life on the line," Ramsey says, "and I really like the example Parker sets in terms of his devotion to family."
The music is "perfect," Ramsey says. "It's so charged with emotion. It guides the actors."
Rise for Freedom followed in the wake of Cincinnati Opera's unprecedented success in 2005 with Margaret Garner, both in terms of production and community programming. There were many deliberate decisions in staging the opera, says Cincinnati Opera Managing Director Patty Beggs.
Comments from the Margaret Garner audiences indicated concern that Margaret's husband Robert was not a stronger character. In creating Rise to Freedom, John Parker's strong sense of family is emphasized. (Parker's great-great granddaughter, Diane Tweedle, will attend Saturday's premiere.)
Another community outreach effort included the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, Beggs says. "We didn't want this to be all about Ohio."
The community education programs have been extensive and impressive, including trips to Ripley to visit the homes of Parker and the Reverend Rankin, his staunch ally.
Beggs says that Cincinnati Opera will continue its commitment to producing original works for community audiences.
"This opera is way of maintaining relationships we've spent many years developing," she says, "and we're looking ahead to future projects building bridges with other communities."
RISE FOR FREEDOM: THE JOHN P. PARKER STORY is presented by Cincinnati Opera at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater on Saturday and Sunday and Oct. 20-21. Buy tickets, check all the performance times and find nearby restaurants and bars here.