Video: Notorious Northampton hanging is subject of world-premiere opera 'Garden of Martyrs'

Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice was rife in the early years of the United States, and a famous bit of local history serves as a good example: In 1806, while a crowd of perhaps 15,000 people gleefully watched, two itinerant Irish laborers were hanged in Northampton for a crime they likely never committed.

Dominic Daley and James Halligan have long since been exonerated, including by a pardon by former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Now the two men are about to get some artistic absolution as well, in an opera that tells the story of their last days and the heroic efforts of a Catholic priest to defend them.

“The Garden of Martyrs,” which will have two performances next week at Northampton’s Academy of Music, was conceived by two local professors, composer Eric Sawyer of Amherst College and librettist Harley Erdman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They in turn have based the opera on part of the historical novel of the same name by Michael White of Fairfield, Conn.

Sawyer and Erdman have also drawn extensively from the Five College community and the greater region in building their cast and crew, building on what Sawyer believes is considerable interest in the Daley-Halligan story.

“It’s a pretty well-known piece of local history, and I think the chance to tell that story in a new way is really exciting,” said Sawyer, who teaches music composition at Amherst and also produced the opera “Our American Cousin” a few years ago. “That connection to local history has been a big appeal to our cast and crew.”

Among the performers — who all have extensive performing credentials in the United States and abroad — are tenor William Hite, who teaches voice at UMass; soprano Amy Johnson, a visiting professor of opera at UMass; and tenor Alan Schneider, assistant technical director in the Smith College Theater Department and a classical and opera singer.

Kevin Rhodes, music director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, serves as the opera’s conductor and musical director; he’ll lead 28 members of his orchestra in next week’s performances. Sawyer says Rhodes has a strong background as a musical director in theater productions and also has worked in a number of European opera houses, making him an ideal choice for “Garden.”

“He really speaks the language of opera singers,” he said.

Murder on the turnpike

The bare facts of the Daley and Halligan story are these: In November 1805, a young man named Marcus Lyon was murdered on a turnpike in Wilbraham. Daley and Halligan, who were travelling from Boston to New Haven, Conn., were seen near the crime scene and arrested and imprisoned in Northampton. At their trial five months later, they were quickly convicted on circumstantial evidence; their court-appointed attorney had been given just 48 hours to prepare their defense.

Father Jean Louis de Cheverus, a former French priest who had fled the violence of the French Revolution, came to Northampton from Boston to take Daley and Halligan’s death-bed confessions; he also gave a historic sermon for the condemned men, blasting the ghoulish voyeurism of the crowd that had gathered to watch the hanging. Nevertheless, Daley and Halligan were hanged at a hastily erected gallows at a site near what’s today known as Hospital Hill, off Route 66 and Burts Pit Road.

White, in his 2004 novel, built background stories for Daley and Halligan, about whom little is known, and created a narrative based on historical characters such as Cheverus and fictional ones like Finola Daley, Dominic Daley’s wife. The opera is based largely on the final part of the book, during Daley and Halligan’s last days before the hanging, when Cheverus comes to see them in jail.

“It’s hard to fit the whole arc of the story in an opera, especially the flashbacks that are a bit part of the novel,” Sawyer said. “But there’s quite a bit of drama and important themes in the latter part that make for a very good story on their own.”

Sawyer first read White’s novel in spring 2010, after Alan Schneider, who plays Dominic Daley, brought the book to his attention. After considering the book’s operatic possibilities, Sawyer got in touch with Erdman, who teaches theater at UMass; Sawyer had admired Erdman’s work as the librettist for the 2004 opera by Old Deerfield Productions, “The Captivation of Eunice Williams,” a retelling of the famous story of a young white girl captured by Mohawk Indians during the Deerfield Massacre of 1704.

Erdman also liked White’s novel and thought it could be recast as an opera. As a librettist, he says he was particularly attracted to the book’s exploration of prejudice against Irish Catholics during the early days of the United States, seeing intolerance — and the need to overcome it — as a theme that transcends historical eras and specific religious and ethnic backgrounds.

William Hite, the UMass voice professor and tenor who plays Father Cheverus, agrees. “To me, the book and the opera raises important issues that are relevant today, like racial profiling ... whether it’s Catholics or Jews or transgender people, there’s always a new group that faces hostility and intolerance.”

The chance to play Cheverus also intrigued Hite, who in researching the role discovered the priest helped soften anti-Catholic views of many New England Puritans, in part through his work aiding the poor. In the opera, Cheverus also must come to terms with a tragedy in his own past if he is to cut through the cynicism of Halligan, a skeptic of religion, and unburden the man’s conscience before he goes to the gallows.

“It’s a very compelling part, with a lot of depth and nuance to the character,” said Hite, who added that he’s impressed with Erdman’s libretto and Sawyer’s score. “The quality of their work shows that you don’t have to go to a major metropolitan area to see really good opera.”

Alan Schneider, who sang in Sawyer’s earlier opera, “My American Cousin,” says he also was struck by the operatic possibilities of White’s novel after he read it, and he recommended the book to his friend along those lines. Now, he says, “It’s such a thrill to think this has all come to pass and we’re just a couple weeks away from actually staging an opera.”

Jeering crowds

There are 10 principal characters in “Garden,” one of which is actually made up of a 30-member chorus that represents the community of Massachusetts in 1806, such as the jeering crowds in Northampton. Erdman says he and Sawyer have largely stuck to the storyline in White’s novel, though they’ve tweaked the plot in some places, altering a voice or two and condensing some scenes.

The eight-act performance also has a dance sequence that’s used to relive a love affair from Halligan’s past, and Erdman says he made the women characters more central to the story “because it’s important to have strong female roles in an opera.” He and Sawyer have been in touch with White through the entire process, and they say the writer has strongly supported their efforts, coming to see some early rehearsals.

Funding for the opera has come from multiple sources, Sawyer says, including grants, personal and business donations, and from Amherst College and individual Amherst students: “We’ve had a lot of generous contributors.”

Smith College has contributed a number of personnel to the production team: Jerry Noble of the music department will play piano in the orchestra; Ed Check, the set designer for the college’s theater productions, has designed the “Garden” set; and college costumer Emily Dunn is the opera’s costume designer.

Preparation for next week’s shows hasn’t been without the occasional mishap. Baritone Keith Phares, who plays the part of James Halligan, recently had a freak accident while walking in downtown Amherst, breaking a bone in his left foot. Sawyer and Erdman say Phares can still play (and sing) his part, as it doesn’t require much mobility, but he’s no longer part of the dance sequence that portrays his past love affair.

That aside, the opera is ready to go, the creators say. “Garden of Martyrs” is also slated to have at least one additional run, in September 2014, at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where White teaches fiction writing and literature.

“After three years of working on this, I’m thrilled to think we’ll have another opportunity to perform it,” Sawyer said. “And we’d love to do it elsewhere — if we can get help from another producer, that would be great.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Garden of Martyrs” will be presented Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 22 at 3 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton. Tickets range from $20 to $50; students are discounted 50 percent. Tickets can be purchased online from the Academy’s box office by following the link at the opera’s web site, Tickets are also available through the Academy Box Office, Tuesday-Friday from 3-6 p.m. or by calling 584-9032, ext. 105.


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