To remember Tulsa, ‘Lovecraft Country’ went the extra mile: writing an opera
For all of its gory, fantastical qualities, “Lovecraft Country” is, centrally, about the very real horror of being Black in America in the 20th century: Every tentacled monster in the HBO series has its roots in monstrous racism.
Sunday’s episode — though it involves portals, time travel and magic spells — culminates in a re-creation of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which received renewed attention last year after appearing in the pilot of HBO’s Emmy-winning limited series “Watchmen.” Composer Laura Karpman felt strongly about what sort of music would suffice to depict the event, during which white mobs terrorized the Black residents and destroyed the Black-owned homes and businesses of the city’s Greenwood District.
“I think we need a requiem at the end,” Karpman told the show’s creator, Misha Green. “I want to write a piece of opera.”
In their quest for the Book of Names, Atticus (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and Montrose (Michael K. Williams) travel back in time to Tulsa, Okla., in the summer of 1921. They can’t change history, though — they have to suffer through it. And fire is the episode’s most indelible motif.
For instance, Green — who has cleverly employed spoken word pieces as soundtrack throughout the series, including a James Baldwin interview and Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon” — employs Sonia Sanchez’s poem “Catch the Fire” in a harrowing moment near the episode’s end:
“Where is your fire? I say where is your fire?” the poem asks. “Can’t you smell it coming out of our past? The fire of living / not dying. The fire of loving / not killing. The fire of Blackness / not gangster shadows. Where is our beautiful fire that gave light to the world? The fire of pyramids; The fire that burned through the holes of slaveships and made us breathe.”
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When Karpman and Green met to discuss the episode’s score, the country seemed to be on fire once again: George Floyd had been killed by police in Minneapolis and protests of such police violence had swiftly spread nationwide. So the composer’s requiem was about much more than Tulsa in 1921 or “Lovecraft Country’s” fictional characters.
Indeed, Karpman, who co-scores the show with the one-time R&B artist and record producer Raphael Saadiq, recognizes the consequence of the long history of anti-Blackness in America, which includes both Tulsa and George Floyd and much more besides.
“My dad — who’s a doctor and never fabulously rich but rich enough — could buy a home, and then I could get that home, and that home can go up in value,” she said. “If you look at Tulsa [in] 1921 and all of that middle- to upper-class property being destroyed, you not only see what is a vicious massacre, but you see generations and generations of wealth being disrupted.”
All of this context inflects the piece itself, in which wild brass blasts and drums set the scene — then, cutting through a rising haze of strings, comes Janai Brugger’s mighty soprano. Karpman first worked with the Chicago opera singer in 2015 on the Grammy-nominated album “Ask Your Mama,” setting the poetry of Langston Hughes to a kaleidoscope of musical styles.
The composer has always been “obsessed” with the Samuel Barber song “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” and specifically the performance by the African American soprano Leontyne Price. “When I heard Janai sing for the first time,” Karpman says, “I thought, Oh my God — she’s my Leontyne Price.”
She showed Green a clip of Brugger performing the role of Pamina in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera. In it, the character is walking through fire — just like the character in the climax of the “Lovecraft Country” episode.
HBO’s “Watchmen,” winner of the best limited series Emmy, connected directly with the nation’s fervor over racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter.
Since Brugger wasn’t able to watch the show in advance, she tapped into the power of Sanchez’s poem and her research into the Tulsa massacre as well as the of the weight of current events when she recorded her solo in July.
“All of that just sat so heavily with me …. It does set this fire within you, to interpret the music the way that she’s wanting to use it for the episode,” says Brugger, who wanted to capture “just pain, and using everything within you to just get through this pain, and a call to action to stand up and fight for what’s right.”
Because of the pandemic, she recorded her part in a makeshift studio inside her home in Chicago, surrounded by noise-dampening moving blankets. She occasionally had to wait for the noise in the alleyway outside her office window to die down in order to get a clean take.
In fact, the entire score for “Lovecraft Country” was recorded that way. Roughly 30 players, each in their own homes, recorded the equivalent of 48 orchestral parts, which were then meticulously mixed and layered to create the sound of a cohesive ensemble playing together.
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Throughout her score for Sunday’s episode, Karpman quoted music from the requiem in different variations. It returns as a theme for ancestors in the season finale.
The composer, 61, is a Juilliard-educated, Emmy-winning veteran who has written operas and concert works in addition to scoring dozens of television projects and documentaries, and she serves as a governor in the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Yet “Lovecraft Country” was the first opportunity she’s ever been given to write “big movie music” — because, as she says, “I’m a woman in Hollywood.”
“I’ve been working a long time,” Karpman says, “and Misha gave me that opportunity to just burst out.”
She’s grateful for that and also for the chance to bring her identity as an opera composer — she’s currently working on a 15-minute opera about parenting in the pandemic for Opera Theatre of St. Louis — in line with her film and TV work. Especially for something as meaningful as “Catch the Fire.”
“Brother/Brotha, Sister/Sista,” goes the refrain. “Here is my hand. Catch the fire / and live.”
For Brugger, it’s a message of hope.
“There is that pain element but also — you’ve got to have hope,” the singer says. “Otherwise, what are you fighting for? You’re fighting for that hope, that things can change, that people will start to come together. That’s what I felt it’s bringing to light. Now’s the time to use that fire within us.”
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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