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Richmond Composer Walter Braxton Reflects on His Opera Finally Being Performed After 25 Years 

click to enlarge Prolific composer Walter Braxton, whom Style profiled in a 2013 cover story, impressed fans and critics alike when his long-gestating opera, “To Damascus” premiered at Firehouse Theatre last month.

Scott Elmquist

Prolific composer Walter Braxton, whom Style profiled in a 2013 cover story, impressed fans and critics alike when his long-gestating opera, “To Damascus” premiered at Firehouse Theatre last month.

Composer Walter Braxton doesn't know the meaning of the word quit.

Braxton began composing his opera "To Damascus, Opus 4, No. 3, an Opera in 5 Acts," in 1992 to fulfill a dream he carried since he was one of only a scarce few young black composers at the North Carolina School of the Arts in the late 1960s.

After numerous setbacks, this "cerebral opera" (as described by its Style reviewer Claire Boswell) finally premiered for seven performances at the Firehouse Theatre under the direction of Joel Bassin, with musical directors Leilani Fenick and Michael Knowles.

The demanding work as presented threads a needle between traditional opera and experimental theater, dispensing with linear narratives and melding 500-year-old styles of music with a staging of the simple joys of everyday 21st century living. In Braxton's imaginative world, even making a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich becomes, in his words, "an admirable way to appease our differences to God, between the sacred and the profane. Not as a grand gesture, but in the simple rituals that we practice in our day."

After decades of fighting and still medicating a schizo-affective disorder that he characterized in a 2013 Style cover story as "imprisoning" him, as well as a bout of cancer two years ago, Braxton is very pleased with the presentation of the opera and especially the audience response.

"I was very impressed by the continuity of the story line," he reports from his room at Winthrop Manor Assisted Living on Idlewood Avenue, as a recording of his complex and emotional "Ballad for Violoncello and Piano, Opus 4 No. 6" quietly plays in the background. "Joel and I spent a lot of time organizing the movements so that they told a story."

Braxton claims this performance differs greatly from his original conception of the opera almost three decades ago. "There were six lead parts in the original and I had to trim them back to three," he explains. "The music remained the same — we did however have to reduce the orchestra from the original 37 players down to 16 … we had six winds and nine strings and electric piano, so the way we set it up created the basso continuo."

"The whole evening felt very special," says Style theater critic Rich Griset of the performance he attended. "With the orchestra onstage, the conductor in full view, and the composer opening and closing each act himself, the opera took on many of the magical qualities that live theater offers."

"Joel decided it only took one conductor," Braxton recalls of his role in the performances, adding that instead of sharing conducting duties he made appearances at strategic points throughout the performance. "In fact the opera could not start until I turned on the lights to the theater," he says, "so I walked up on the stage and in a grand gesture turned the lights on then walked off to sit in my reserved seat."

"People recognized me, it was good exposure," he says with an artful smile as a fellow Winthrop resident interrupts him to bum a cigarette. "It was a little ridiculous, but it went over like a charm."

Braxton's former classmate at the North Carolina school, classical pianist Leslie Spotz, was thrilled to learn of the opera's world premiere. "I have followed Mr. Braxton's career, especially as a composer, with great interest for many decades," she says. "His is a living testament to the power of perseverance. Braxton's story is remarkable, and I hold him in the highest esteem in the professional world of music."

Braxton beams at the comment. "How about that!" he exclaims, "that she could know me from such a short time I knew her."

On April 27, Braxton and several musicians are rehearsing and recording a neoclassical composition he calls "Vibray for Flute Quintet" at Church of the Holy Comforter, 4819 Monument Ave. The public is invited to attend.

Meanwhile, this prolific musical prodigy continues to hand-compose and revise at the card table in his room and on the piano downstairs at his residence.

"I'm squared away," he says quietly. S

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