Singing his praises

With the story of a Massachusetts slave, history Prof. T.H. Breen is trying to break down the walls between departments at Northwestern.

Breen, recent recipient of the Harmsworth Professorship in American History at Oxford University, is working with award-winning artists to put together an opera at Northwestern based on his research.

Breen’s historical account of an executed slave — “Arthur, a Negro” — will be adapted into a full-length opera by composer T.J. Anderson, bringing together the history, music, African-American studies and humanities disciplines.

Although Breen will be away from NU next year to teach two American history classes at Oxford, he said he plans to continue contributing to the adaptation. Students and professors from the four departments also will work on the opera while Breen is away.

The opera is expected to premier at NU in two years and will be be performed and produced by the School of Music.

Music Dean Bernard Dobroski said he wanted NU to sponsor and premier the opera to give different departments a chance to work together.

“The idea of cross-campus initiative is something I’ve been dedicated to for a long time,” Dobroski said. “This would be a wonderful legacy to the operatic literature here.”

Dobroski said students will begin reading scenes and learning the orchestration of the opera next year.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa is writing the opera’s libretto based on Breen’s story, which details the life of a slave executed in 1768 for a crime he might not have committed.

“I’ve seen the libretto and it’s fabulous,” Breen said. “It’s a very moving and lyrical poetic piece of writing, as you’d expect a poet to do. It really does have a lyric quality.”

Breen has been closely involved with the adaptation of the story by Komunyakaa and Anderson.

“It’s clear that what will appear on stage is in touch with what I wrote, but it’s also a creative rendering,” he said. “I quickly realized that if I said, ‘It’s got to be exactly historical,’ or ‘It has to be just so,’ that would not be in the spirit of it. But it’s been a fully cooperative process.”

Komunyakaa said that while the libretto is almost complete, he looks forward to working further with Breen and Anderson to shape his initial vision.

“It’s interesting because one creates alone in a given space, but when everything meshes and creates a larger canvas, there’s a certain kind of joy,” he said.

PBS adapted another book by Breen for a television documentary in 1998. The story, about the first black settlement in Virginia, was the first segment in the series, “Africans in America.”

Although Breen has been at NU for 30 years, he will not be a stranger to England when he begins his sabbatical there next year. Breen has taught at the University of Cambridge once before and worked as a senior research fellow at Oxford.

“So I know this world (of Oxford) and I like it a lot,” he said. “Teaching undergraduates there is very similar to teaching graduate students here, because they’re so advanced in their field. On the other hand, they don’t have the breadth of American undergraduates.”

Breen said he is also looking forward to interacting with British students, who he said tend to be more open during class discussions.

“They’re used to talking in a way that a lot of American students have to learn in college,” he said. “Most of the British men and women come to college already with very high verbal skills. It’s sometimes really amazing — their ability to write and talk.”

After teaching at Oxford, Breen will serve a visiting professorship at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. He will spend two weeks there discussing his research on early American history.

Breen taught for two years at Yale before coming to NU in 1970. He said the NU history department has helped him greatly to pursue works like “Arthur, a Negro.”

“Northwestern has a capacity to encourage imaginative and productive scholars to pursue their work,” he said. “That means a lot. I received a great deal of support, in terms of sabbatical and research funds that allowed me to reach out, and I would say that my career has only been constrained by my own imagination.”