Brandon Gibson had never written an opera. Then a police officer murdered George Floyd. The result is 'I Can't Breathe.'
conductor Garrett Mcqueen leads an orchestra rehearsal for the new opera 'I Can't Breathe.' (Photo courtesy Marble city Opera)
Brandon Gibson has become a familiar face — and familiar baritone voice — on the Knoxville music scene over the past decade.
Both as a performer and as managing director of the small, forward-looking Marble City Opera, Gibson has been involved with local productions of classic and contemporary operas, musicals and chamber music.
He has also been a writer, mostly on social media, including occasional long, thoughtful posts about the experiences of being Black in America.
But he had never attempted to combine those streams until now. Next week, Marble City Opera will premiere a new work, I Can’t Breathe, with music by composer Leslie Burrs and a libretto by Gibson.
“It’s really a surreal experience,” Gibson said of watching the opera come together, with six other performers singing his words. “But it’s very rewarding also, because it’s like, ‘Oh wow. Yes, this is what I was going for.’”
I Can’t Breathe tackles the experience of police violence against people of color through the perspectives of six characters, of different ages, genders and backgrounds. (And races — one is white.)
Performances are scheduled for next Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24-26, at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, 1927 Dandridge Ave. Space is limited because of the size of the venue and COVID-19 precautions, but tickets are also available for live streams of each performance.
‘There Should Be an Opera’
The opera has its roots in the traumas of spring 2020, when the killing of a Black man named George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked a surge of activism for racial justice. Two other killings that had happened in the months before Floyd’s also rose into national headlines — the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police during a raid in Louisville, Ky., and the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three white men in Georgia.
Gibson was working at a downtown Knoxville bank at the time.
“It was early days of the pandemic, and so we actually weren't allowing clients into the bank at all,” he said. “And so all we had to do for eight hours a day was talk about the news, basically.”
At one point in a conversation about the different killings, Gibson lost track of which of the three cases was under discussion. The realization made him feel ill.
“One of these (killings) should happen, well, never — but in a generation, once maybe,” he said. “But so many of these have happened right here together that I’m confused in talking about it.”
He was also trading Facebook messages with Kathryn Frady, the co-founder and executive artistic director of Marble City Opera. The company, founded in 2013, has produced both original work and inventive stagings of classics. Gibson and Frady wondered what if any contribution it could make to the discourse around the deaths.
“She was like, ‘Well, I’ve got an opera company, there should be an opera about this,’” Gibson said. “I said, ‘You know what, you’re right. There should be an opera about this. We should find something.’”
But after looking for a suitable piece for Marble City, they came up empty-handed.
“That’s when she said, ‘All right, do you want to write it?’” Gibson said. “I said, ‘I’ve never even written a song before. But sure, I’ll give it a go.’”
The timing was good. Gibson, a graduate of Austin-East Magnet High School and a member of this year's "40 Under 40" cohort named by knox.biz, had spent the previous several years constantly moving from one artistic project, role, and production to another. The last one just before the pandemic hit was Marble City’s premiere of ShadowLight, an original opera about the life of Knoxville painter Beauford Delaney. Gibson sang the lead.
But with arts organizations and venues essentially shut down for the remainder of 2020, he had an unusual amount of time to devote to what became I Can’t Breathe. He wrote an initial draft by the fall of that year.
He said he wanted to focus on individual stories — not of real people, but characters who could show a range of lives that all end up impacted by violence and tragedy. He wanted to emphasize that before anyone becomes a name in a headline, they are people with their own complex lives and experiences.
“You’ve got a person, you've got a life that was going through all the triumphs, all the tragedies that everybody goes through — a regular human being,” Gibson said. “Somebody survived a serious illness, somebody got the job they wanted, the bullet missed them, the test was negative, all this stuff. And then one day because somebody thought they looked scary, or tall for their age, or thought their cell phone was a gun, or thought they moved in a threatening way — it’s all over, just like that. Again and again and again.”
The characters include a single mother, a suburban professional, and a “Black nerd — a guy that likes anime and all these other things that are not traditionally associated with Black guys.” There’s also the white character, a romantic partner of a Black man killed by police.
‘How Many More Times?’
To Gibson’s relief, Frady and others loved the libretto he presented to them. The next step was to turn it into an opera. Gibson said he and Frady agreed that they wanted it to be a completely Black-led production. Through a contact, they got in touch with Burrs, an African-American composer and flutist based in Philadelphia. He enthusiastically agreed to write the music to accompany Gibson’s words.
Jonathan Clark, executive and artistic director of Knoxville’s Carpetbag Theatre, signed on as the stage director. And Garrett McQueen, a former member of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra now based in Minneapolis, agreed to come back to town to conduct the nine-member orchestra.
Gibson opted not to perform in the show himself — “I couldn’t handle the stress,” he said with a laugh. But having gone through the experience once he said he would like to try writing another work, if and when the inspiration comes.
“I’ll wait and see what the feedback is,” he said. “But just even the experience so far of seeing people sing it, seeing the score that the composer has returned, I can see some things like, 'OK, I would do this differently, but I would keep doing that.' So I’ll definitely try it again.”
First, though, there is next week’s world premiere of the work. The short Knoxville run will be followed by productions in other cities — opera companies in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio, have all signed on to produce it. Gibson said he hopes to attend at least some of those.
“How often in your life is a theater in Los Angeles going to be playing something that you wrote?” he said.
As for the big picture question of what he wants audiences to take away from I Can’t Breathe, Gibson said his hopes are fairly straightforward.
“How many more times is this going to happen?” he said. “I want everyone to think about that question. Regardless of what color they are, because a Black audience and a white audience or any other race audience will see this piece differently, based on what they bring with them. But the question is the same: How much longer are we going to, as a society, allow this to go on?”