I knew when I read Lillian Smiths novel Strange Fruit that Joan Sorkin and I could make it work as an opera. The character types were immediately familiar to me, being from a small town in eastern North Carolina. The injustice of the tragedy also spoke directly to me. Giving voice to stories of racial struggle has been of central concern to my work as a composer. When Joan approached me, I had just produced No Easy Walk to Freedom, my opera about Nelson Mandela and the struggle to overthrow apartheid. In spite of the years I had devoted to composing that first opera, I was eager to return to the theme of racial struggle. Opera has always been an ideal medium for expressing cultural identity, and a central part of the American identity has been forged in the searing heat of racial conflict.
Another aspect of Lillian Smiths novel that attracted me was the musical possibilities
inherent in the setting. Just as traditional South African music was the backbone of No Easy
Walk to Freedom, I knew that American roots music, white and black, would form the sound world
of Strange Fruit. The very fact that Smiths title was inspired by the Billie Holiday
song (composed by Lewis Allan) seemed to invite a musical setting. Of course, Holidays Strange
Fruit (the lynched body swinging from a tree) is very different from ours (Tracy and Nonnies
bi-racial child), but her performance nonetheless haunts the opera from the outset. In fact, the
opera is haunted by a wide range of musical styles from gospel hymns to urban jazz and country
blues that gives voice to an equally wide range of characters: from angry to cowed, educated
to ignorant, affluent to poor, racist, cynical, naïve, overbearing to gentle and decent.
I wont bother to correlate the characters with the musical styles, except to point out that
the operas central character, Nonnie, enters as a shy, gentle and loving soul singing in
a simple, unaccompanied lullaby in the Appalachian folk tradition.
During the course of the opera, she is drawn into a boiling cauldron of personal and social turmoil. When she strides across the stage in the final scene, her character has taken on the wise but scarred voice of the woman who sang the original Strange Fruit.