Andrea Edith Moore: Family secrets: Kith & Kin

Albany Records; Nov. 1

A few weeks ago, soprano Andrea Edith Moore was walking her dog down an alley in her Durham neighborhood when she came across a bomb squad removing a forgotten World War II mortar. A neighbor had discovered it in a crawlspace, left there by a previous owner of the house. Mesmerized, Moore hurried home. “I was like, ‘I’m the nosy neighbor,’ and I posted to the listserv,” Moore recalls, laughing. “I felt like I had come upon this discovery. It was a tangible moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to share this.’”

That same energy—of secrets, of being in your neighbor’s business, of the deep connectedness that underlies a community—animates her new recording of Daniel Thomas Davis’s chamber opera, Family Secrets: Kith and Kin, released in November on Albany Records. Written in and commissioned by Moore in 2015 , the work unfolds in a series of seven vignettes from life in an imagined Southern town, each built around some kind of secret—real or imaginary, hidden or revealed, dark or light. The work uses texts from seven authors, each of whom has a connection to Orange County: Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Frances Mayes, Michael Malone, Daniel Wallace, Jeffery Beam, and the late Randall Kenan, who passed away in late August. Moore and Davis grew up in North Carolina themselves, making this a celebration of the area’s arts scene.

Moore initially conceived of the piece in 2008, after returning home from a two-year stint working as a singer in Hamburg, Germany. She settled in Hillsborough with her parents, who gradually introduced her to the town’s vibrant literary life, including many of these authors. By around 2011, she decided she wanted to commission a new work that brought them together, something that reflected the worlds of these contemporary Southern writers. She settled on the theme of family secrets, because “everyone has them” and “I knew that a Southern writer without family secrets just wasn’t doing the right thing—you know?”

She was right. The writers turned in piles of text. She jokes that Jeffery Beam submitted 100 poems (in reality, it was closer to 30). As she and Davis began sifting through the texts, condensing them down and giving them shape, they began to discover connections between them.

“These writers all know each other,” Davis writes in the liner notes. “And one way or another, the people that inhabit their writing all seem to know each other, too.”

That insight is a driving principle in Family Secrets, allowing these seven distinct literary voices to meld into a single village. It’s a town brimming with recognizable figures and the complex emotional relationships that grow in a place where, for better or for worse, everyone knows everyone else.

Take “The Porch,” which adapts a poem by Beam. In the distance, some neighbors are singing an imagined folk song accompanied by a crackly banjo, while Moore’s character zeroes in on details of the neighborhood swirling around her. She spins a web of evocative metaphors, buttressed by vast, open harmonies from a five-piece ensemble of banjo, violin, cello, piano, and oboe. Within those observations comes a sudden burst of sadness for someone who is gone.

“Will you return?” She asks, “Or will your absence become coolness?” Later, the scene peaks when that absence becomes a “sweet and deafening silence,” over an impossibly ebullient musical texture that seems to contain more sound than five instruments could possibly make. Heard now, the layers of emotion are almost too much to bear.

Even more complex is Kenan’s “Chinaberry Tree,” which recounts the true story of his aunt’s murder at the hands of his uncle. What starts as a hopeful tale of a return to the South for retirement takes a grisly turn that reflects the many roles we inhabit in our lives—all silently observed by an omnipresent, disinterested Chinaberry tree. Davis twines Moore’s singing with spoken narration by actor Jane Holding, with one echoing or foreshadowing the other throughout.

Unlike the rest of the opera, which seems to be congenitally rooted in folk music, this scene is driven by the logic and turbulence of post-minimal classical music. Kenan was notorious for missing deadlines, and Davis had already started writing music when he finally, bashfully, submitted his text. But the story he wrote, as Moore recalls, “anchored the whole thing and turned it into an operatic scale.” Davis calls it “a parable of the Great Migration and race and violence and the American South—these painful histories that are cyclical.”

Not everything in the opera is heavy. Gurganus and Smith’s contributions crackle and fizz with the primal joy of gossip; “But, yes, even knowing Sheila, I AM the least little bit surprised!” Moore declares at one point. Wallace’s “The Pantry,” meanwhile, charts a fantastical voyage of discovery in a hidden corner of the pantry, over a slurred honky-tonk piano. It’s these moments of levity that give the darker moments their impact, enhanced throughout by Davis’s warm, evocative music.

While Moore has performed Family Secrets a few times already, including at the North Carolina Opera in 2018, any planned performances around the record have, of course, been scrapped.

We’re all feeling the coolness of absence right now. Being able to go see this on stage would be a great way to replace that coolness with warmth, to see and be seen, to gossip about it, and maybe as Allan Gurganus says in the epilogue, “be saved from our worst selves.” 

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