Home > Music, Opera, Poetry/Spoken Word, Ted Kooser, Theater, Writing > Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud


One of the more interesting opera programs I’ve seen is the oratorio, Blizzard Voices, with words by poet Ted Kooser and music by composer Paul Moravec.  The dramatic template for the program was The Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as The Children’s Blizzard because of the large number of youths who lost their lives in the great white blow out that smothered the Great Plains.  Years before the opera program Kooser used survivors’ accounts of the natural disaster to create a book of poems called The Blizzard Voices, which was eventually given a dramatic reading at the Lincoln Community Playhouse.  Kooser adapted his work for the oratorio.  The concert used orchestral music, solo and chorus singing, spoken words, lighting, and projected images created by artist Watie White to transport the audience into what I called the great white shroud.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was written before I saw the oratorio, based on interviews I did with Kooser and Moravec.

If you’re a Ted Kooser fan or want to know more about the poet, this blog contains stories I’ve written about him.  Just click on his name in the category roll on the right hand side o

 

Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

January 12, 1888 began much like any other winter day. A tad warm for the season perhaps. A brisk breeze swirled about and a bank of low lying clouds to the north suggested a change brewing. Yet except for a strange electric current in the air and the odd behavior of pets, no real portent warned of the fury to be unleashed on the Great Plains. Nebraska would not be spared.

When the blizzard hit terrible wind and snow spewed forth from the sky and didn’t let up. The temperature plummeted, dropping far below zero. The big blow cut through the land like a giant scythe swung in unrelenting anger. The enveloping storm smothered everything in its path — humans, animals, houses, barns, fences, fields, roads, bluffs, gullies, creeks, rivers. Anything caught unprotected was soon frozen or buried in the great white shroud. Drifts reached 20 feet high.

So concentrated was the storm that day turned to night. Visibility reduced to nothing in the blinding, numbing white-out conditions. Many souls died from exposure across a several state region, among their number — children. It was a school day and some students perished trying to reach their farm homes. Thus, it came to be known as The Children’s Blizzard.

 

©Illustration by Dick Taylor

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. grew up hearing stories of this storm of the century. In the 1980s he wrote a slim book of poems under the title The Blizzard Voices inspired by recorded reminiscences of survivors. His blizzard poems were given dramatic readings by the Lincoln Community Playhouse.

Now, Opera Omaha’s mounting an original oratorio, The Blizzard Voices, based on his poems. The concert hall production integrates orchestra, chorus and soloists on stage. The music is by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul MoravecStewart Robertson, making his swan song as Opera Omaha artistic director, conducts. The premiere performances, Sept. 12 at the Holland Performing Arts Center and Sept. 13 at Iowa Western Community College’s Arts Center, are both at 7:30 p.m.

Kooser’s spare poems, each from the perspective of an actual survivor, describe awesome, gruesome, tragic, heroic events of that surreal experience, one whose extremes still resonate today. “Stories of suffering and survival go back to our deepest origins, I think, and we never tire of them,” Kooser said.

Moravec said by phone from Manhattan he admires how Kooser’s lean poems communicate the intimate human dimensions of this natural disaster in the language of every day rural people, many of them immigrants.

In an artist’s statement, Moravec wrote, “Part of the power of Mr. Kooser’s adaptation derives from his wise decision to allow the ordinary, plain-speaking historical accounts come through their simple, rough-hewn eloquence. The music is similarly clear and direct in its emotional impact.”

The composer’s chosen a selection of Kooser’s blizzard poems that best dramatize the sequence of events. His own research included poring through Nebraska state historical archives and reading David Laskin’s book The Children’s Blizzard. Given that the storm victims were mainly Lutheran he felt it appropriate to write an original chorale that suggests the lamentations of familiar Protestant hymns.

Religious themes are used by Moravec throughout. There’s an excerpt from the Book of Job in the prologue. A psalm. Plaintive prayer-like pleas for mercy. Who could blame people for ascribing the storm to God’s wrath? Moravec incorporates Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem “In Remembrance” to speak to the everlasting spirit of those that died and those that commemorate their loss. He said his composition draws on historical sources, but is thoroughly contemporary.

For the Lincoln dramatization Kooser found skip rope rhymes he used as bridges between the spoken poems and as counterpoints to the raging blizzard.

“I modified some of the traditional ones to resonate with the blizzard experience,” he said. “Others are intact as originally used. These are a part of American folklore, and not attributable to actual writers. American folk rhymes are quite wonderful.”

One of Watie White’s images for Blizzard Voices 

 

 

Moravec’s retained these skip rhymes in his oratorio. The rhymes, in conjunction with the poems, the psalms and the prayers, express a sense of innocence lost.

The composer and poet met once during the piece’s evolution. Just as history informed Kooser’s poems, his blizzard works informed Moravec’s compositions.

“Since then we’ve exchanged a few e-mails, but early on I gave Paul complete freedom to do whatever he wanted with the poems, and the only input he’s asked me for involved minor historical information,” said Kooser.

To convey the blizzard’s power musically the costumed orchestra, chorus and soloists project full-out. To interpret its force and impact in more than purely musical terms Robertson commissioned Omaha artist Watie White to create images for projection on large screens. “I did see the drawings just the other day — and I thought they were just right.” Kooser said. Lighting will also play a role in setting moods. At the heart of it all though are the blizzard voices’ spoken and sung words. Kooser’s eager to see how the complete oratorio gives voice to his work.

“I have not seen any of it during development,” he said. “When I go to the premier it will be as fresh to me as to the rest of the audience.”

He hopes the production’s successful enough that it tours.

 

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