Craig Hella Johnson vividly remembers when University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was found dead in 1998, an anti-gay tragedy that sparked outrage around the nation and eventually led to federal legislation targeting hate crimes in 2009.
“I’ll never forget it. It just pierced like a knife,” Johnson recalled.
He said the sense of grief, rage and hopelessness stuck with him, and eventually in 2012 he began writing Considering Matthew Shepard, a three-part oratorio (a musical performance comprised of an orchestra and choir). The show, which premiered in 2016, will be performed two consecutive nights in Mississippi, first at the University of Mississippi’s Ford Center on Feb. 27, then at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Mannoni Performing Arts Center on Feb. 28.
Johnson composes and performs with his Grammy-winning choral collective Conspirare (Latin for “to breathe together”), which he founded in Austin, Texas, in 1991. In 2016, Considering Matthew Shepard was nominated for a Grammy for Best Surround Sound.
Conspirare’s connections with the two Mississippi schools helped bring the show to the state: Both UM associate professor of music and singer Jos Milton and USM associate professor of violin Stephen Redfield are members of the Austin-based group. The performances are part of a national tour this year marking the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death.
A Texas resident, Johnson is an inductee in the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. The many roles in his distinguished career include being the music director of the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble, the conductor emeritus of the Victoria Bach Festival and guest conductor for symphonies around the world. He studied at the Juilliard School as well as the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany.
This piece is his first concert-length work. Johnson knew that, as a musician, there was a lot of potential for him to represent Shepard’s life.
“The only thing deeper than music is silence itself,” he said. “Music has a very powerful potential for being a healing conduit and for speaking to things which are difficult to hold and difficult to express. With that awareness, I knew that there was potential to hold this story.”
Johnson came up with the title because he wants viewers to use Shepard’s story as a lens through which to reconsider what it is to be human.
“This isn’t just a musical retelling of the last days of Matthew Shepard,” Johnson said, “but rather an invitation to each audience member to consider not only this story but also other ways in which we participate in these acts of separateness, these ways in which we project our own unresolved humanity unto another, that can ultimately lead to real acts of hate.
“To invite people to consider a world that we envision, where we actually can learn to be with each other in deeply respectful and deeply loving ways, as fellow members of the human family around the globe.”
Researching Shepard’s life was key for Johnson in composing the piece. He traveled to Laramie, Wyo., where Shepard attended school and was later killed, to speak with classmates. He also got to know the late 21-year-old’s parents, who even gave Johnson their son’s journal.
“What helped me greatly was a conversation I had with his mother, Judy Shepard,” Johnson said. “When I asked her at one point how she and Dennis (Shepard, Matthew’s father) held all of this, she said, ‘The world knows Matthew Shepard, but to us he was Matt. He was our boy.’ Something became so clear to me in that moment that I wanted to include in my piece: snapshots of Matt, who was a very vibrant, very alive, very opinionated young boy, a young gay boy, who was playful, but who also had lots of sadness. He was many things, a real, young, ordinary boy.”
One of the early movements, “Ordinary Boy,” portrays those qualities, using words from Shepard’s journal. Johnson called it the most significant song in the piece.
Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation called Considering Matthew Shepard “by far the most intricate, beautiful and unyielding artistic response to this notorious anti-gay hate crime.”
Information for tickets is available online for the University of Mississippi show on Feb. 27 and the University of Southern Mississippi show on Feb. 28.