Operatic Opus


As the Starr Center’s 2016 Hodson Trust - John Carter Brown Fellow, Georgetown University Professor Gretchen Henderson has been sifting through lives and afterlives to unearth the meaning and the music of The Bondwoman’s Narrative.

Gretchen HendersonFor Gretchen Henderson, music was the beginning of her journey before academia. Her journey has seen her through crafting operatic librettos, writing two novels, Galerie de Difformité (winner of the Madeleine Plonsker Prize) and The House Enters the Street (shortlisted for the AWP Award Series), a work of music criticism, On Marvellous Things Heard, a poetry chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, her acclaimed new book on Ugliness: A Cultural History, while teaching literature and creative writing courses at Georgetown University, MIT, and many other universities. She originally trained as a singer and musician. “The music came before the writing,” Henderson said. “The words grew from the music.”

Her work for her Hodson-JCB Fellowship certainly reflects that musical inclination. Crafting the Bonds, Henderson’s fellowship project, is an operatic narrative and libretto based on the survival and recovery of The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (pseudonym for Hannah Bond): the earliest known novel written by an African American woman, an escaped slave from North Carolina. The opera is not an adaptation of the novel but rather raises questions about the lives and afterlives of stories. It will be composed by Elena Ruehr, a Guggenheim-winning composer on faculty at MIT, with whom Henderson collaborated on her first opera. Henderson was librettist and dramaturge for that choral opera, Cassandra in the Temples, which premiered at MIT in November 2014 by the Grammy-winning NY vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Henderson reinterpreted the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra through an ecological lens related to whale songs and climate change, among other influences.

In these operatic collaborations, Henderson’s writing comes before the music. She designs the full opera narrative and writes the libretto, then sends the completed version along with many notes to the composer. Henderson always keeps performance in mind. Months and even years of research need to be condensed into about two hours. “The text will inhabit a body, written to be sung. It reads more like poetry than prose, with stage directions like drama. Many genres and disciplines come to bear on the project. Writing a libretto is an exercise in compression,” Henderson describes. “It’s a bit of a paradox, since opera tends to be a genre of excess.”

For this new opera, Henderson was inspired in part by the “ghost story” behind the rediscovery of the manuscript of The Bondwoman’s Narrative by the librarian, Dorothy Porter Wesley, and the historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and essentially the rediscovery of the voice of the author, Hannah Bond. Bond used the pseudonym Crafts for her unpublished manuscript. “She hid her name in her novel’s title,” Henderson said. “She essentially was sold twice.” Henderson is designing this opera to open with a scene that juxtaposes a 19th-century slave auction and the 21st-century manuscript auction. The blurred lines between past and present, fact and fiction, and between the protagonist and her manuscript, call attention to what Henderson calls the “book as body,” a reoccurring theme throughout Crafting the Bonds.

The first half of Henderson’s fellowship was spent at Brown University, mostly at the John Carter Brown Library for her research immersion. At Brown she was able to engage with the historical record of slavery through primary documents and absences, building on her familiarity with the novel’s story and authentication, which she had first learned about as a doctoral student. Henderson is committed to framing the 19th-century story through a 21st-century framework that calls attention to the legacies of slavery and the vital need for continued work on civil rights and diversity. After finishing the research portion of her fellowship, Henderson traveled to Chestertown, where she has set up home base at the Patrick Henry House as she uses her time to craft Crafting the Bonds.

During her time in Chestertown for the Hodson-JCB Fellowship, Henderson has learned more about the rich and complicated history of the area. “Chestertown has so much history that pertains to my work on Crafting the Bonds,” Henderson stated. “From the Underground Railroad, to Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, among other proximities, it has been a privilege to be surrounded by such important history.”

Henderson’s time with Washington College hasn’t been all work. During her downtime from writing, she has enjoyed walking, swimming, playing occasional bocce with the local league, and connecting with neighbors, colleagues, and students in the area. “Everyone has been incredibly kind and welcoming,” Henderson said. “I’m grateful to be here.”

The Starr Center administers the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellowship in partnership with the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions for the study of early America. Founded with a $1 million endowment from The Hodson Trust, the Fellowship supports work on significant projects related to the literature, history, culture, or art of the Americas before 1830. Now in its fifth year, it welcomes submissions not only from traditional historians, but also from filmmakers, novelists, and creative and performing artists.