When the first performances of Angela Rice’s oratorio Thy Will Be Done were completed in 2012, the composer was far from finished with the piece.
“All of these ideas came flooding into my head after the first performance, of things that needed to be there: the temptation of Jesus in the desert; Jesus saying, ‘I’m the way, the truth and the light;’ and I wanted to do a theme on forgiveness, because that wasn’t in there: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ There were very important themes and messages that Jesus brought into his ministry that didn’t make it that first year.”
So she wrote nine new pieces for the work’s performance last year, and four additional pieces for concerts this week.
Gregory Turay, the tenor who has sung the role of Jesus all three years, says he enjoys being part of Thy Will’s continuing evolution.
“It’s growing, and that fascinates me, and that’s what’s so exciting about a living composer working on a piece of music who is willing to change and adjust,” Turay says. “I’ve worked with living composers who say, ‘No, that’s it.’ Even if it bombs, they say, ‘That’s what I wrote.’
“But somebody who’s willing to change and sculpt and create this piece, it becomes a living, breathing work that changes and comes alive in new ways every year.”
For its third outing, Thy Will Be Done has changed behind the scenes. The first two productions were presented by Bluegrass Opera, a company devoted to productions of new works. The new performances are with Global Creative Connections, a production company owned by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.
(Bluegrass Opera will present another new Easter oratorio, King of Glory, on April 14 at First United Methodist Church and April 15 and 18 at Tates Creek Presbyterian.)
Rice says she enjoyed and appreciated working with Bluegrass Opera, but she was interested in the opportunity to work with McCorvey and his organization, which presents projects including the American Spiritual Ensemble and the annual Alltech Christmas choral program at Victorian Square; it also was behind the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
“I decided that the work was ready for a wider audience, and I wanted to work with Everett to help take it to the next level,” Rice said.
McCorvey, who saw a performance last year, says it fills a void.
At Easter time, he says, there are only a few musical options for choirs and choruses that want to present seasonal performances. They include the Easter portion of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, Theodore DuBois’ The Seven Last Words of Christ and Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion; the latter two, McCorvey says, demand professional choirs or choruses to be done well.
“What’s nice about this is a church choir, a community chorus, a professional chorus all could do this and have a very satisfying experience,” McCorvey says of Thy Will Been Done. He said all involved in this production are paid professionals, including the chorus, the orchestra and the directors.
Rice has not pursued having Thy Will published — yet.
One quirk she had not counted on was copyright law. The text of Thy Will Be Done is straight from Scripture, and the Bible itself is not copyrighted, but many translations are. Much of the first edition of Thy Will Be Done was based on the New International Version, which is copyrighted. So to publish her piece, Rice had to rewrite much of the text using open-source and non-copyrighted versions of the Bible so as not to face thorny copyright issues.
Even more than that, she hasn’t published because she regards Thy Will as a work in progress. In its third production, she wanted to focus on Christ’s relationships.
“Instead of Jesus being like he was the first year, teaching from the Sermon on the Mount and teaching the Lord’s Prayer and teaching what they needed to learn from him, this shows the relationships people had with Jesus,” Rice says. “His relationships with these people were extremely important, and his love for them and what he wanted to do for them. And the feeling was mutual.”
That involved bringing in more soloists to portray characters including the woman at the well and Mary Magdalene.
It isn’t just the singers who like having the composer involved in the process. Chorus director Joshua Chai, who is collaborating with conductor Marcello Cormio on the concerts, says it’s a rare but welcome experience for him.
“It’s a lovely thing to have, even for things that are outside the standard dots on a page,” Chai says. “Just being able to look over and say, ‘How did you mean this?’ ‘What was the image in your mind when you wrote this?’ So I can give something to the choir other than, ‘Beat three should cut off here’ is wonderful. Those things are important, too, but the images that Angela is able to give me make the choir’s experience that much richer.”
That experience extends to singers as well.
“I remember in the process of working on ‘holy, holy, holy,’ how almost rhapsodic it was in a way, and that image for me as a singer enhances my ability to give to the music,” says soprano Shareese Arnold, who plays Mary Magdalene. Referring to Rice, Arnold says, “I love that you sit in rehearsals and give suggestions like, ‘Oh, I think you should do this,’ because that really enhances my experience doing this.”
Singers returning to the piece see its evolution.
“It’s interesting coming from last year to see how much it’s changed and how much it’s growing,” says chorus member Rebecca Keith, who was in last year’s production. “Seeing it grow, it’s kind of like I’m journeying along with it in my life journey. It’s very powerful to be part of this and see how it grows as my own faith grows.”
At its core, Thy Will Be Done is as much an expression of Rice’s Christian faith as her art.
“The depth of the Bible, we cannot get to the bottom of it; it’s so deep,” Rice says. “But I can only express what is significant to me, and I hope it is significant to other people, where their faith walks are.”
She and others see the work having a spiritual impact on the audience. Turay talks about a man who had been away from the church for decades who came up to him in tears after a performance.
“Now, I see him at church every week,” Turay says.
Rice says, “I looked around the audience and would see people in tears, and I was perplexed, ‘Why are all these people crying around me?’ And that encouraged me to go on, because I could see my work was having a spiritual impact.”