Experiencing ‘Matthew Shepard’

Photo of Craig Hella Johnson via USC Annenberg Media.

Considering Matthew Shepard, a Passion oratorio composed and conducted by Craig Hella Johnson and performed by the choral ensemble Conspirare, tells the story of a college student in Wyoming whose life was ended by a homophobic hate crime twenty years ago this month.

The series of choral performances evoked strong emotions in the crowd and those performing. These emotions were brought out through more than just the subject matter. The acting, lighting, visuals, and musical accompaniment worked together to bring the majority of the crowd to tears.

I started crying with the Prologue’s “Ordinary Boy.” Recognizing Matthew Shepard as a victim of a hate crime is one thing, but this song introduces him to the audience with a personal connection. As the singers described his family and sang excerpts from his notebook, I felt as though I transformed from a curious audience member into a friend of a boy I never had the chance to meet. Listening to his life story knowing that it would end prematurely evoked a feeling similar to grief.

Within the Passion, I felt as though the songs personifying the fence to which Matthew was tied conveyed a lot of unsaid emotion. “The Fence (before)” foreshadows the second recitation, which explains the crime committed, but that foreshadowing is represented as the fence wondering in first person about its own fate.

“The Fence (that night)” adds a witness to a witnessless crime. It moves from describing what Matthew’s comatose body felt like to telling the fence’s role in the eighteen hours that he was left out in prairie: cradling him “just like a mother.”

“The Fence (one week later)” seems to act as a pillar of strength to those mourning over the loss of Matthew’s life. The fence had become a memorial site, and while the fence says that those coming interacted with it in “unexpected ways,” it was “better than being the scene of the crime.”

“The Fence (after)/The Wind” is set after the fence has been torn down. The winds carry Matthew’s life through his home state of Wyoming and the story of his life throughout the country, so he won’t be truly forgotten.

After the seventh recitation is “Stars,” which is the transcript of a court statement given by Matthew’s father. He invokes a personification of nature and says it comforted his son after the attack. That his father could say something so comforting after his own son’s death made the performance so serene that in the midst of my tears, I was able to listen and feel somewhat calmed by his own composure.

At the end of the Epilogue is a reprise of “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass,” one of the opening movements of the Passion, that goes by the name “This Chant of Life.” The man acting as Matthew Shepard finishes the oratorio with a beautiful ending, along with the unity of voices from the rest of the choir. The reprise was significantly slower than the original at the beginning of the performance, but it still emitted feelings of happiness that I felt like the audience needed after a roller coaster of emotions.

The full performance was magnificent, and told throughout of very heart-touching moments in Matthew Shepard’s short, ordinary life instead of focusing on his death. And that is truly beautiful.