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Mr. Aarons Goes to the Opera

Journalist, gay activist, and now librettist Leroy Aarons talks with Madeleine Shaner about his new opera on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. logo
If you subscribe to the theory that all cats are gray in the dark and, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a writer is a writer is a writer, you might check in with Leroy Aarons, a journalist for more than 30 years. From chief of the New York and West Coast bureaus of the The Washington Post, he became executive editor for the Oakland Tribune, where he supervised the team that won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. He is founder and a board member of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which became the primary source of training for multicultural newsrooms. In 1990, he founded the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, which now boasts 1,300 members in 23 chapters nationally and has exerted major influence on the quantity and quality of coverage of gay issues in news media. Currently a visiting professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communications at USC, Aarons also founded the Program for Sexual Orientation Issues in the News.

Inside every journalist, however, is a "serious" writer trying to get out. So Lew Aarons has written the libretto for Monticello, a powerful new opera about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. The opera just had its premiere as part of L.A. Theatre Works' "The Play's The Thing" series. John Rubinstein directed, and Victoria Kirsch was the musical director. Members of Los Angeles Opera (including Shana Blake Hill, Cynthia Jansen, and Haqumai Sharpe) and Kaleo & Angels Gospel Ensemble's Annette Daniels, Christopher Schuman, and Michael Paul Smith joined voices to sing Aarons' words.

Aarons 'retired' from journalism in 1991 in order to explore other areas of writing. His first project was a collaboration with Geoffrey Cowan, now Dean of the Annenberg School. Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, was produced by L.A. Theatre Works with a stellar cast including Ed Asner, Ed Begley, Jr., and Marsha Mason. It received the Gold Award for Best Public Radio Entertainment Program. Then Aarons undertook a project that lay very close to his heart. He recalled a story in the San Francisco Examiner about the suicide of 20-year old Bobby Griffith, a young gay man who had not been able to reconcile his sexual orientation with his family's fundamentalist religious and moral beliefs. Aarons--encouraged by his life partner, Josh Boneh--contacted Mary Griffith, the boy's mother. After a series of grueling interviews and access to Bobby's journals, he wrote the compelling Prayers for Bobby, which became a riveting bestseller, a choral work set to music by Jay Kawarsky, a made-for-TV docudrama--and may also be turned into a movie starring Susan Sarandon. The book, published in 1995, was nominated for a LAMBDA Literary Award.

Buoyed by the successful choral adaptation of Prayers for Bobby, Aarons stumbled upon Fawn Brodie's tome Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait, the book that revived interest in the previously discredited rumor that Jefferson had a slave mistress. Fascinated with the accommodation of this secret slave/master relationship by the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence--and by the fact that it became a major scandal in Jefferson's administration, opening the door to the hidden information that Sally Hemings was related to the Jefferson family through his wife, Martha (the understanding is that Sally's father was Thomas Jefferson's own father-in-law)--Aarons knew he'd happened on a highly operatic situation. "I view this drama as a living metaphor of America's most compelling dilemma," he has said, "its ambivalence about race and the clash of its enshrined ideal of freedom with the realities of its failures."

Composer Kawarsky, however, found himself blocked on the project--so Aarons completed the libretto without a composer. Through a mutual friend, the finished libretto was given to Glenn Paxton, a multi-credited musician (The Adventures of Friar Tuck, First Impressions, and W.R. and Daisy) and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. Paxton was so excited by Aarons' work that he wrote a complete score in four months. It was a marriage made in heaven.

Aarons has always had a special affection for musical theater; even when he was busy reporting on the news, he had time to study lyric and theatrical writing with Lehman Engel, the great Broadway conductor. At the tail end of his journalistic career, Aarons was able to "pull back on the journalism and begin exploring the theatrical form, the book writing form, and now the libretto form. The last decade has been a creative expansion for me. Music enhances and changes the emotional impact of the work; that's a definition of musical theater and opera. I love working in that genre." Of Monticello, he says, "It probably came closer to anything I've ever written to emanating from me in such a way that I felt I wasn't even writing it. The piece just kind of took on its own life--the lyrics, the rhymes." At present, there are no plans for a commercial production of Monticello, but a stage production definitely hovers in the musical's future.

[Editor's Note: Aarons spoke with Madeleine Shaner by phone from the lobby of Kaiser Hospital as he awaited ultimately successful heart bypass surgery.]

[Additional Note: L.A. Theatre Works began producing Audio Theatre in 1987, expanding its collection since then to over 250 classic and contemporary plays--the largest such library in the country. The company has received Gold and Silver Awards from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting plus several Sony Awards, New York Festivals Awards, and a Writers Guild of America Award. The world premiere performances of Monticello on April 26, 27, 28, and 30 were recorded before a live audience at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles for future broadcast on KCRW 89.9FM, to be followed by a CD release.]

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