Youngstown native’s opera premieres Saturday


What: The world premiere of “Highway to Canaan” opera

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: First Unitarian Church, 21600 Shaker Blvd., Shaker Heights

Admission: $10


Youngstown native J LanY has lived a life of music.

Starting as a child prodigy who dazzled audiences with her voice and piano playing, the 1962 graduate of The Rayen School has had a long and distinguished career as a musician, vocalist, educator, conductor and composer.

Her career has been marked by many highlights. She has sung at the Aspen and Tanglewood and Berkshire music festivals; founded and conducted the Cleveland Choral Collective; conducted the Shaker Symphony Orchestra; composed the anthem for Cleveland’s Bicentennial in 1996; and served as special visiting artist at the Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Ontario.

But her current project might be the crowning achievement of her career: an opera based on the Underground Railroad.

“Highway to Canaan” will get its world premiere at 5 p.m. Saturday at First Unitarian Church, 21600 Shaker Blvd., Shaker Heights.

Set in 1851, the opera is about a group of runaway slaves who are seeking two things: freedom, and a woman who had been banished from their plantation.

“Highway to Canaan” illuminates the role Northeast Ohio — particularly Youngstown — played in transporting slaves to freedom.

Youngstown is the first Northeast Ohio city mentioned in the opera, as the runaways make their way to the Buckeye State from Tennessee. The second act begins in Sandusky, a major Underground Railroad port city, where a town crier alerts the residents to the arrival of slave hunters. LanY lives in Catawba Island, Ohio, not far from Sandusky.

“The opera emphasizes faith, unity, determination, family and courage among the runaways and the abolitionists along the way,” said LanY .

People of all ages and races will find it uplifting, she said, because of the story and the glorious music. “The sound of the 1800s comes through,” she said, adding — with pride in her voice — “This is about America.”

The opera is scored for chamber orchestra, including strings, banjo, woodwinds, English horn, brass, timpani, snare, cymbals and piano.

The narrative is paced by a baritone Storyteller, in keeping with the black oral tradition.

Although LanY ’s story is fictional, it is based on historical details, including the 1850 law that enabled slave hunters to find and forcibly return blacks — whether free or not — to slavery.

Two of the lead roles are sung by winners of the 2010 National American Spirituals Collegiate Solo Voice Competiton, which LanY founded: soprano Jackline Madegwa of Kenya, a graduate voice student at The University of Illinois; and bass-baritone Kendrew Heriveaux, a graduate voice student at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

LanY said she was inspired by God to found the voice competition, and also to compose “Highway to Canaan.” Amazingly, she has brought both to fruition without the financial backing of a university, orchestra or opera company.

“I believe in the guidance of the Almighty now as my ancestors did in the 1800s,” she said. “It was that faith that brought them out of bondage, and it is that faith that is driving me to produce this opera in 2011.”

Perhaps inspired by LanY ’s passion, everyone in the production has offered their services for no pay.

“This opera is destined to go down in history,” said LanY , noting that few women have composed operas, and even fewer black women.

LanY has a doctorate from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston; and a bachelor’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

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