When the University of Virginia University Singers perform a new oratorio on Friday evening, audience members can find their way into the story of Matthew Shepard through a variety of musical genres.
“There are moments that are like [J.S.] Bach chorales; there are moments like a Broadway musical,” conductor Michael Slon told The Daily Progress. “There is country music. There is yodeling.” Also among more than 30 individual movements of “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a 2016 oratorio by Craig Hella Johnson, are moments that will remind listeners of compositions by Benjamin Britten and Arvo Part.
Visual projections of artworks by Karin Elsner and Elliott Forest will transform the concert into a multimedia experience that will help audience members reflect on the killing of Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tied to a fence and left in the cold on Oct. 6, 1998, near Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, 21, died six days later in a hospital without regaining consciousness, and the brutality of his death intensified a national conversation about hate crimes and eventually led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
“Considering Matthew Shepard,” presented in a regional premiere in the University of Virginia’s Cabell Hall Auditorium, offers students and community members a chance to reflect together on Shepard’s story as the 25th anniversary of his death approaches — and consider what has and hasn’t changed in contemporary culture since then.
“The music invites us to lay down our burdens without forgetting them and look past the fence in this story with hope and healing for a better horizon,” said Slon, UVa’s director of choral music. “It’s a challenging topic, but I think the work addresses it in a loving way.”
Learning the work has provided solid musical education for the singers. The oratorio is about 100 minutes long and is sung without intermission. A chamber orchestra will join the chorus, as will student and professional soloists.
“Musically, it has been an opportunity for our students to explore different styles of music,” Slon said. “I think it is a tremendous component of their artistic education.”
Bob Witeck, a UVa alumnus and board member of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, will be on hand to speak before the performance. Witeck said he has heard portions of the oratorio performed before, but he looks forward to hearing the work in its entirety for the first time in Cabell Hall Auditorium.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” Witeck said. “I just want to be there.”
In the quarter-century since Shepard’s murder, performances of Moises Kaufman’s play “The Laramie Project” and Johnson’s oratorio have helped bring Shepard’s story to new listeners, especially to younger generations. Listeners in the audience Friday night may find themselves pondering the fact that the undergraduate performers on stage were not yet born when Shepard was killed.
“The thing I find remarkable is how much the arts help bring this [event] back to life,” Witeck said. “This and ‘The Laramie Project’ keep it alive for many many students.”
Witeck, president of Witeck Communications and a 1970 graduate of UVa, said that a lot has changed since his own college days, but plenty of progress remains to be made to help gay students feel safe.
“I was a closeted young gay man years ago at UVa,” he said. “UVa, I think, is a leader in creating a positive and welcoming climate.”
Even if they don’t live in fear of hate crimes like the one that took Shepard’s life, “young people feel vulnerable knowing that misperception and bias and blowback are happening,” Witeck said. “Evenings like this help. They leave with a sense of a stronger community. They’ve been educated at the same time they’ve been inspired.”
Witeck said, “I’m very close to Dennis and Judy [Shepard], Matthew’s parents, and I take a lot of strength from them.” He said the Shepards have heard the oratorio.
Audience members will want to keep in mind that some of the content may be triggering or uncomfortable. The oratorio discusses a variety of themes, including mourning, reflections on Shepard’s death and anti-gay opinions and actions. Witeck said tackling the issues in the context of art and performance is beneficial.
“Tough subject matter is transformative,” he said.
Tickets are $15 for general admission, $13 for UVa faculty and staff members and $5 for students. Tickets are available at artsboxoffice.virginia.edu.