William Still deserves to be better known. The youngest of 18 children, Still was born free in New Jersey in 1821. He settled in Philadelphia and became an active member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, chairing its Vigilance Committee and serving as a major leader of the Underground Railroad. Throughout the 1850s, his home served as a way station for at least 800 formerly enslaved people on their journey to Canada.
What sets Still apart from other participants in the Underground Railroad is that he interviewed every passenger who came through his house, meticulously documenting their lives, the abuses they faced while enslaved, and the hardships they faced on their journey north.
In 1872, he published an encyclopedic 800-page book, The Underground Rail Road, which paired these accounts with letters he received later from formerly enslaved people that he had helped.
It is this incredible document that serves as the foundation of composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell’s opera/oratorio, Sanctuary Road, whose opera version North Carolina Opera will premiere this weekend at Fletcher Opera Theatre in Raleigh. First commissioned by the Oratorio Society of New York in 2016, the work was first conceived as an oratorio about the Underground Railroad.
Campbell recalls initially being excited but apprehensive about the project.
“I’m not comfortable being a white guy talking about slavery,” he said at the time. “Let me find a way to honor the people who were actually there who actually did something.”
When he came upon Still and his book, he told Moravec, “This is a way we can tell this story. This is actually the only way that I can tell this story.” Moravec readily agreed, noting that Still is “such an admirable character. He elevates everyone who is involved here. He’s our silent partner in this work. How can we honor his work here?”
In Sanctuary Road, though Moravec and Campbell are white, nearly every other major participant in North Carolina Opera’s production is Black: all five of the lead soloists are Black (something Campbell insisted on when writing the libretto) as are conductor William Henry Curry and director Dennis Whitehead Darling.
After the premiere of the oratorio version, it was clear to both Moravec and Campbell that there was potential for the piece to do more. As a form, an oratorio is a kind of unstaged drama with a full orchestra, chorus, and soloists—think Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. It has plenty of space for drama. But an opera has room for more. Campbell recounts deciding to cut a scene from the oratorio where Still interviews a man he discovers is his long-lost brother (whom his mother had left behind when she escaped slavery) because it was “a little too dramatic and detailed for an oratorio.”
Converting the work into an opera allowed them to add that scene back in and to bring the drama and danger even further to the fore. The piece unfolds in a series of vignettes, using Still, his interviews, and his book as a springboard to recount the true stories of a number of fleeing people. There’s the story of Ellen Craft, who disguised herself as an ailing old white man taking a train to Philadelphia to see a doctor while her “slave” (her future husband) was in another car. Though she briefly panics when she sees a man she had served dinner to the night before in the same car, Craft and her fiancé escape to freedom.
There’s the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself in a cramped crate from Richmond to Philadelphia, a 26-hour journey, with only a tiny hole to allow him to breathe. He escaped to freedom and became an abolitionist and performer. Then, there’s the story of Wesley Harris, who fled on foot, running through marshes and woods, dodging dogs and slave patrols. He also escaped to freedom.
Of the hundreds of people whose stories Still tells, Campbell chose to adapt the ones that “sang,” that “had some sort of elevated idea,” that were a little “nobler, funnier, more poetic, more passionate.” It’s those wide-ranging moods as much as the reality of the stories themselves that give Sanctuary Road its power. These are stories whose multiple emotional resonances demand to be sung, and Moravec’s gripping, tuneful music brings them life with visceral immediacy.
“I like the idea of plain-speaking, ordinary people,” Moravec says, “their own words, their own historical records, caught up in the most extraordinary circumstances, and how they respond to it.”
Since the work was originally written, William Still has started to become better known—he was played by Leslie Odom Jr. in the 2019 film Harriet—but he still isn’t as much a part of our history as he should be.
And in a moment where the teaching of Black history has come under increasing attack from right-wing demagogues, works like Sanctuary Road become even more important. William Still’s story is our story—and this opera honors it well.
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