Stateside Podcast: An Opera Ode to Octavia Butler
Parable of the Sower — Octavia Butler’s classic sci-fi novel about a teenage girl leading a ragtag group of followers through a futuristic, dystopian America — holds a special place in its readers’ hearts. Among those readers is musician, composer, and producer Toshi Reagon, who adapted the book into an opera. The show is coming to Ann Arbor, hosted by the University Musical Society, from March 25th through 27th.
Although Toshi last staged this show at UCLA before the pandemic, she feels that she’s bringing an entirely new production to the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor.
“This is going to be the first time we've done it. We have new cast members, and we're really glad we're going to be there. That's a place that Sweet Honey in the Rock and my mom have consistently gone to throughout their careers. So it feels kind of warm and fuzzy for me, but it's always a little different. It's everywhere we go.”
Reagon is a seasoned musician, but she’s a relative newcomer to the opera world. She previously worked on two shows with her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon, composer, activist, writer, and founder of the Black a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. However, Toshi found the task of translating the book to song to be quite straightforward.
“People are so inspired by it,” she said. “A lot of artists have, you know, vibrated on the themes of her work because it is so — you can just see it. It's like cinematic. It just kind of jumps out at you. Yeah, it wasn't that hard to do.”
During the pandemic, Reagon took a deep dive into the novel with longtime Detroiter adrienne maree brown on a Parables podcast. Together, they spotlighted some of the parallels that can be drawn between the real world and the world of Lauren Oya Olamina, the book’s protagonist.
Toshi talked about the opportunities and permissions that arise in times of conflict and crisis — for example, the pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine — and how they open the door to harmful actions and choices that wouldn’t be made under normal circumstances. She said that this situation often leads people to roll over and abandon efforts towards change.
“We give up on the things that we have access to by which to create change, because we don't think they will solve the whole problem. So we just give up. This is what opens the door in her story, is political power says yes to so many things that we don't need and are harmful to us.”
Butler’s story begins with a 15-year-old Lauren living in an upper-middle class community in the fictional town of Robledo. As the community members build a barrier akin to the Berlin Wall around them, Lauren sees the flaws in that plan and begins thinking of more productive strategies to remedy a challenging world. In order to make change, the character realizes, she has to engage in the problems at hand.
“To participate in it, you know, to not avoid it; to believe what you know, and then to be a resourceful person; to investigate and to see the small ways and the big ways that you can move through difficult situations.”
In the novel, Lauren has the ability to physically feel others’ pain when she sees it. Like many other readers, this aspect of her character resonated strongly with Toshi. She sees it as a lasting lesson that readers can take away from the story.
“It's already hard to see somebody be hurt,” she said. “But Octavia is like, ‘No, I'm going to make it harder. I'm going to make it that she literally experiences it physically when she sees it.’ And I think that's a thing for us to understand, that the body feels like it can't take anymore. And then therefore, here comes this like numbness. And let me just activate in the place where I have a little room and comfort. And Octavia is like, ‘No, open your eyes, take in what you can and stay open.’”
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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.
Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.