A conversation with Paul Moravec &
We were excited to sit down with composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that created the enormously successful Sanctuary Road, to discuss their latest oratorio, A Nation of Others. Paul and Mark chat about their decision to create a work about immigrants, the power of the oratorio form, the choice to place the action on a single day on Ellis Island in 1921, and collaboration with OSNY to develop this new commission.
This epic new work makes its world premiere in OSNY’s season-opening concert on November 15 at Carnegie Hall, commissioned by OSNY through the generous support of Joanne Spellun.
What inspired you to write a piece about immigration?
Paul: I wanted the piece to be about Ellis Island specifically. And Mark did something inspired as he always does, which is to set it on a single day. So there’s a feeling of time compression and unity of time and place. Mark placed all the action, characters, and everything that happens in the oratorio on one day in 1921.
Mark: I researched and read many personal accounts of immigration at Ellis Island in the first half of the last century. I imagined stories based on those accounts and interwove them into the typical structure of arriving, processing, interviewing, and finally departing Ellis Island. These stories include a Sicilian man seeking a better life for his family; a woman escaping pogroms in Ukraine; an Irishman fleeing the Black and Tans in his hometown of Tralee; a Swedish mother and her daughters joining their father in Kansas to run a farm; and an Armenian man who survived racial genocide in Turkey, who was treated by a fellow immigrant who was a nurse at the Ellis Island hospital. Our stories are not only about people who saw opportunity in the U.S.; they are also about people who came here because they had no choice.
Why did you choose 1921 for the setting of the work?
Paul: The Emergency Quota Act had been passed that year, which restricted immigration. There was a feeling that there was too much immigration and immigration of the wrong people. But it was prior to the Immigration Act of 1924 that limited the number of immigrants allowed from each country even more. The result was a real constriction of the flow of immigrants into the United States and through Ellis Island, and that continued basically until the 60s when immigration opened up again. A Nation of Others is set in the last of the Great Age of Ellis Island – the end of its Golden Era, really.
Why an oratorio?
Paul: When you have a chorus of 150 people on stage, it’s as though the whole world is singing. It’s like all of America is singing. This is our story.
Mark: Paul is incredibly adept at creating a big, sweeping sound for the chorus—but he also knows how to elicit the drama in the individual stories of A Nation of Others in the most powerful, detailed way. The music follows the broad emotional landscape of the libretto and is by turns inspirational, heartrending, humorous, and moving. It is an opera without sets and costumes (and the longeurs!).
Do you and your families have a personal connection to or experience of immigration?
Paul: My grandfather came through Ellis Island in 1907 when he was 16. The thing about the stories that Mark and I are telling is these are people coming through Ellis Island and giving up everything they’ve ever known, all they know is that they’re going to Ellis Island, and many of them didn’t even speak English yet … and the experience itself of going through Ellis Island, on a human level must have been terrifying. I can’t imagine what my 16-year-old grandfather experienced coming here. So, the stories that we’re telling are stories of people under pressure, compelled to come here for one reason or another.
Can you speak about your work together and your collaborative process?
Mark: There are so many things I prize about Paul and our collaboration. He’s a brilliant musical dramatist. We match each other musically and contextually. Paul makes me do my best work and challenges me, and it comes from a place of really strong, mutual respect. I respect him so much as a composer, as an artist, and as a human being. Every time we collaborate, I just can’t wait to work with him again on a new piece.
Paul: We’re on the same page in a lot of ways. Also, Mark doesn’t waste time. In other words, I’ll send him an idea that I think is the best idea in the history of the world, and he’ll come back in a few minutes and say, no, and he’ll intelligently explain why it doesn’t work. Then, I’ll come up with a better solution than I would have otherwise.
Could you speak more about A Nation of Others’ current relevance?
Paul: There’s a line Mark wrote that to me, summarizes the work. It’s sung by the full chorus in their collective role as the immigrants who are being processed and vetted by the authorities in Ellis Island: Look on me as you would another person.
In terms of American history, this is a story that continues to today, in one way or another and we are indeed a “nation of others.” We’re a nation of other nations. The story is still relevant today because the story continues, and will continue for the foreseeable future. America is a work in progress. As long as this process continues, we are continually evolving.
Mark: Our nation is beautiful and unique because we are a nation of different cultures and experiences. That’s where our strength lies. It’s where cultures come together and we learn from each other. This oratorio is ultimately a triumphant story about that specifically.
Could you speak about your collaboration with OSNY?
Paul: My connection to OSNY and Kent goes back 25 years. They are on a mission to make great art in a difficult medium. And their dedication to championing new music is incredible … this is my fourth collaboration with Kent and OSNY, and with every piece I write for them, I have the support and freedom to create something really special.
Mark: I really admire how much they care about stories that are relevant to our lives. While they do incredible work with the traditional oratorio repertoire, they are also on a mission to keep the oratorio form alive. And they know the best way to do that is to make new oratorios that are relevant to audiences from all backgrounds.