The Dallas Morning News
Oratorio tells ‘sacred’ story of hate crime
Grief over gay college student’s violent death inspires ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’
Nearly 20 years after the violent death of a gay Wyoming college student named Matthew Shepard, composer Craig Hella Johnson recalls hearing the news as if it were yesterday.
“It was very vivid: We were just about to start a rehearsal, and a singer came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘His name was Matt,’ and started sobbing,” Johnson says.
“The news was piercing to me — this broad spectrum of grief, sadness and anger — and it stayed with me a long, long time.”
Johnson finally put all his feelings into music with Considering Matthew
Shepard, a three-part oratorio sung by Conspirare, the acclaimed Austin choral ensemble Johnson founded and directs. The work will have its Dallas premiere Wednesday at Moody Performance Hall, as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series.
Considering Matthew Shepard has already emerged as one of Johnson’s best-known compositions. Released in 2016, a two-CD version of the piece
debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart and was nominated for a Grammy. A documentary concert film about the work is being readied for PBS to mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death in October.
“Matt’s story is kind of a sacred story in our culture ... but this is not just about Matt,” Johnson says.
“The title is very important to me, the idea of ‘consideration.’ It’s an invitation for all of us to look at the larger issues we’re dealing with over and over again. We’ve seen hateful speech and hate crimes spiking again. ... I’m sorry to say this piece is feeling extraordinarily relevant.”
Shepard’s murder on a rural road outside Laramie, Wyo., inspired Congress to pass the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate-crime laws to include crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Sung by Conspirare’s nearly 30 vocalists, Considering Matthew
Shepard features words from a wide range of sources, from news reports to Sufi mystic poet Rumi to Shepard’s own journal. Johnson found further inspiration from Bach’s Passion oratorios about Christ’s crucifixion.
“It doesn’t sound like Bach, but the influence is in the way that Bach held people emotionally with a difficult story,” Johnson says.
“In this day and age, ever since the iPod Shuffle, I think we’re longer-work-challenged. But I really love these larger choral orchestra works. I’m interested in preserving longer stories so we can come together and have these sustained experiences.”
Later this year, Conspirare will travel to Laramie to perform the piece near where Shepard died after being beaten and tied to a fence post by two men he met earlier that night at a bar. For Johnson, the concert in Wyoming will be among the most moving he has ever conducted.
“There’s the sense that this event didn’t just happen in Laramie, it happened in the American West,” Johnson says. “The American West is a place and a culture where we’ve taken so many understandings of our maleness and strength. ... They’re false notions, for the most part, yet they’re indelibly imprinted in our lives through film and literature.”
Dennis and Judy Shepard — Matthew’s parents — will travel to Dallas to attend Wednesday’s concert. The founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an LGBT advocacy group, Judy has been supportive of Considering Matthew Shepard since Johnson began writing it, but she delayed listening to it until long after it was finished.
“I’m certain it’s challenging, as a mother, for her to relive this in a new way, as a piece of art,” Johnson says. “She said they don’t often endorse projects, so for them to endorse this and come be at these events is very moving for me. It means a lot for all of us.”
Judy Shepard will also take part in an after-show talkback, the type of segment that can seem superfluous at some arts performances, but not at this one.
“The talkbacks for these concerts have been just amazing. ... I think people come expecting this to be terribly sad, but they tell us they were surprised how hopeful and unifying it felt,” he says.
For Johnson, that unifying factor is essential. Instead of retelling a tragic story about bigotry and prejudice, he set out to write a story that might pull people together.
Plan your life
The Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live will present Conspirare performing Considering Matthew
Shepard at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Moody Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St., Dallas. $25 to $65. dma.org/all.
“I wanted to face this moment, culturally, at a deeper level,” he says. “I wanted to move beyond tolerance and acceptance and move toward a place of love and respect and finding a way for all of us to live together in this human family.”