It’s early evening at Carnegie Hall in December 1939, and pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-1942) is about to take to the stage with a white clarinettist for a performance with the Benny Goodman Sextet.
It’s the first time a Black and a white musician will share the stage. The magnitude of the moment triggers an anxiety attack in Christian and he is catapulted in a time travel journey that takes him back and forth through the history of North America and its decades-old manifestation and struggle with racism.
In real life Christian who came to prominence during the swing era is credited as one of the developers of bebop and cool jazz genres and his style of playing is said to have elevated the role of the electric guitar in the conventional band.
He is the central figure in Backstage at Carnegie Hall, a chamber opera developed by Montreal’s acclaimed guitarist and professor of Music Tim Brady, which explores the lingering presence of racism in the USA and Canada as witnessed by the iconic guitarist in his delirium.
The history of racism and the electric guitar is woven together, as Christian travels through time. He comes in contact with famed opera singer Marian Anderson and meets Rufus Rockhead, iconic Montreal club owner who brought a line-up of the world’s best jazz musicians to this city.
He is also transported to 2014 to witness a demonstration against racial-profiling, which highlights the continuing presence of racism in North America.
As well he meets Orville Gibson, the man credited for making their first guitar.
The multiracial opera has an all-Canadian cast that features Montreal tenor Ruben Brutus as Charlie Christian.
Brutus, who honed his skills under the tutelage of Richard Margison and Robin Wheeler, the director of the Opera workshop at the University of Montreal, has performed with l’Opera de Montreal and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Other cast members include soprano Frédéricka Petit-Homme, baritone Christopher Parker, soprano Alicia Ault, and baritone Clayton Kennedy.
Audrey Dwyer, associate artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre is the librettist and is credited for weaving together a moving and captivating of story.
Backstage at Carnegie Hall runs at Centaur Theatre, 453 St. Francois-Xavier, Montreal, QC, HZY 2T1 on Sept. 23, 24.
For ticket information 514-288-3161.