Jeannette Rankin was a suffragette leader and outspoken pacifist who in 1916 — before women had even won the right to vote — became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Her inspiring story is the subject of Fierce Grace: Jeannette Rankin, a song cycle commissioned by OPERA America with a text by Kimberly Reed and contributions by four composers: Kitty Brazelton, Laura Kaminsky, Laura Karpman and Ellen Reid. On April 7, OPERA America and the Library of Congress co-presented the cycle’s world premiere at the library’s Coolidge Auditorium. It was almost 100 years to the day after Rankin was sworn in as a Republican representative from Montana.
The cycle’s creators used the Surrealist “exquisite corpse” technique to craft their four songs: One composer would pass the final phrases of her work to a colleague, letting it serve as the germ for the next song in the cycle. The resultant work presents three vignettes from Rankin’s career: the 1917 vote on whether she should be allowed to wear her hat on the House floor; the uproar in 1940 when she cast the lone vote in opposition to entering WWII; and the 1968 anti-Vietnam War march she led on Washington. A final song captures a present-day woman’s musings, many in text-message form, about Rankin’s legacy. Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson and pianist Mila Henry were the performers at the premiere. A recording of the performance and a copy of the score will be incorporated into the Library of Congress’ holdings.
OPERA America commissioned Fierce Grace as a tribute to Bank of America, which has been a generous supporter of OA since 2008, as well as the world’s largest corporate contributor to the arts. The creators of the cycle are all multiple-time recipients of OA’s Opera Grants for Female Composers, a program supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation that funds opera compositions by women.