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Appomattox is an opera in English based on the American Civil War, composed by Philip Glass, with a libretto by the playwright Christopher Hampton. The work had its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on October 5, 2007, with a cast that included Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee, Andrew Shore as Ulysses S. Grant, and Chad Shelton as Brigadier General Edward Alexander. The piece is about two and a half hours long, in two acts, with a prologue and an epilogue.

Synopsis

The opera is set in the final days of the American Civil War.

The prologue begins with Julia Dent Grant (soprano) singing of her fears for her husband, Ulysses, and her sense of foreboding. She is soon joined by Mary Custis Lee (soprano) and her daughter Agnes Lee (soprano) who worry for their way of life and hope the war will be over soon. Mary Todd Lincoln (soprano) appears and asks her black servant Elizabeth Keckley (mezzo-soprano) to interpret a nightmare her husband, the President, has had. All sing of the sorrows of war and the hope that this will be the last, joined by a female chorus who carry pictures of their loved ones killed in the war.

Act I covers the days leading up to Robert E. Lee's surrender in five scenes.

Scene 1 starts with Abraham Lincoln (bass) and Ulysses S. Grant (baritone). Aboard his floating headquarters on the Potomac, the President and Grant outline a plan to end the war and discuss the generous terms of surrender to be offered to Lee. Their wives arrive, Mrs. Lincoln voicing petty grievances, while Mrs. Grant is steadfast and calm. News of a successful retaking of a Confederate-held fort is brought in by Brigadier General John Rawlins (bass) and Colonel Ely S. Parker (tenor) of the day's battle; Grant then orders the final assault on Richmond. The scene ends with an actual Civil War campfire song. "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground", sung by both armies as Grant and Robert E. Lee (baritone) watch the sunset from their different offices.

Scene 2 transitions to the offices of General Lee. Mrs. Lee rejects her husband's advice to flee Richmond before the coming battle. Lee reflects on his reason for joining the Confederacy despite having been offered the leadership of the Union forces: his invincible loyalty to his home state of Virginia. General Howell Cobb (bass) arrives to give a report and confronts Lee over a bill he supports, one that will recruit slaves to fight for the Confederacy, a bill that Cobb believes undermines the entire revolution: If slaves make good soldiers, where does that leave the theory of slavery? Lee responds that his business is war, not theorizing.

Scene 3 is a lengthy monologue for Julia Grant. On the eve of the Union's attack on Richmond, she reflects on the hard years of her husband's earlier life, including his business failures and alcoholism, but she recalls her mother's prophecy that he would rise to be the highest in the land. Now she worries about the horrible strain the long, bloody war has put on him. Grant assures her that the seemingly endless killing will soon be over.

Scene 4 is a depiction of the destruction of Richmond, the chorus of refugees fleeing and singing between bomb blasts. Mrs. Lee, remaining in her home, watches as the residents of Richmond flee and burn everything they own as to not leave anything behind for the Union army. She and Agnes reflect on the horrors of war. A regiment of black Union soldiers enter and sing a marching tune, a variation of the Marching Song of the First Arkansas. The black reporter T. Morris Chester (tenor) writes a triumphant report to his newspaper while sitting in the speaker's chair of the House of Representatives. President Lincoln arrives and meets a throng of newly freed slaves. When one of them falls to her knees in front of him, he lifts her up telling her to kneel only to God. The slaves sing a hymn in praise of Lincoln. Mrs. Lee meets with Brig. General Rawlins, and expresses her outrage at having a black soldier as sentry in her occupied house. The sentry is to be replaced with a white soldier.

Scene 5 depicts the exchange of letters between Lee and Grant after the taking of Richmond. Grant proposes that Lee surrender to avoid further bloodshed. Lee's initial response is equivocal, only inquiring as to the terms Grant might propose, and later suggesting they meet to discuss "peace" rather than "surrender." But when Lee receives news of his encircled army's failed breakout attempt, he realizes his options are disappearing. His aide, Brig. General Edward Alexander (tenor), proposes a radical change of strategy: guerrilla warfare. Lee rejects the stratagem, saying that the soldiers would have to revert to robbing and plundering just to subsist. With no remaining alternative, Lee writes to Grant and asks for a meeting to discuss surrender. The full, crushing weight of his decision weighs upon him as he accepts the reality of defeat.

Act II begins on April 9, 1865 The meeting to negotiate the surrender is being prepared in a house owned by Wilbur McLean (baritone) in the small town of Appomattox Court Housemarker, Virginia. Lee arrives impeccably dressed, while Grant in his haste appears in a battered, stained uniform. After polite reminiscence about their past acquaintance, Lee finally raises the subject of surrender. Grant proposes the broader terms and proceeds to write them down.

Their discussion is interrupted by a sudden flash-forward to early morning, five days later. Mrs. Lincoln tells Elizabeth Keckley about another of the president's nightmares in which he witnessed his own funeral after being killed by an assassin. Keckley interprets the dream as the death of the war, not the President. Mrs. Lincoln tells of another dream, in which the president rode alone on a great ship to a vague, distant shore. This time, Keckley has no answer and rushes from the room. Mrs. Lincoln sees a vision of a funeral procession bearing a flag-draped coffin, and sees herself following it. She screams and collapses, and the action returns to the treaty signing.

Grant proposes--to Lee's great relief--that all officers and men be allowed to return to their homes after handing over their arms. Lee requests a moment to look over the terms.

The action flashs forward again, to 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana. T. Morris Chester enters and, obviously traumatized, reports the infamous Colfax massacre, in which a hundred black militiamen were cut down by the Ku Klux Klan and White League.

Grant accedes to Lee's request that all his men, not just the officers, be allowed to keep their horses, so that they can return home to work their farms. The terms are set down in ink by Colonel Ely Parker, the only Native American present.

The scene flashes forward again, this time to 1965. Four Civil Rights Marchers enter and, with the chorus, sing "The Ballad of Jimmie Lee", a folk song telling of the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, and set out on the Selma to Montgomery marches.

The meeting concludes as Lee signs the letter accepting the terms, and the generals shake hands. After Lee bows and leaves, he approaches his troops and confirms the surrender; they can go home now, and if they are as good citizens as they were as soldiers, then he will be proud of them.

As the generals depart, soldiers and civilians advance, and the McLean household is systematically ravaged by souvenir hunters. Rapacity and greed—harbingers of the future—violently intrude on the heels of a moment of historic reconciliation.

The action flashes forward one last time, to the present day. Edgar Ray Killen (bass-baritone Philip Skinner), a Klan member now in jail for his role in the Mississippi Civil Rights Workers Murders in 1964, appears. Now an old man and wheelchair bound, he sings in short, barking phrases of his pride in ordering the death of two Jewish civil rights workers and their black driver, and relives the murder in enthusiastic detail. His horrible recollection over, he disappears.

In a brief epilogue, Julia Grant sorrowfully realizes that the War was not the last, as she has hoped, and that mankind will forever fight and kill. She leads the Women's Chorus in a wordless lament to the sorrow of war.

Unusually, both male leads, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, are sung by baritones, so as to facilitate comprehension of the text without the aid of supertitles. The music is original except for the use of the first and third verses of the Civil War era song "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" at the end of Act I Scene 1. Act II uses Psalm 47, "Clap your hands all you people," and the text from a First Arkansas Brigade song, but these are set to music by Glass.

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