In 1936, on assignment for Fortune Magazine, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans spent eight weeks documenting the lives of impoverished tenant farmers living in Tuscaloosa and Hale counties.
Though the article was never printed, Agee’s descriptions of life as a sharecropper under the weight of the Great Depression and Evans’ striking photography were eventually published in a 1941 book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Now, nearly 80 years later, Dr. Joseph Landers, professor of music, is only a few months from debuting an original operatic adaptation of Agee and Evans’ seminal work in celebration of Alabama’s forthcoming bicentennial.
It’s taken the composer, recently named the 2019 Todd and Linda Strange Endowed Professorship, five years to create what’s become his most ambitious project. He compared the process to “building an aircraft carrier out of popsicle sticks.”
“I told myself I could do it, but I don’t know if I believed myself when I told myself I could do it,” said Landers. “I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It wasn’t something that exhausted me, it was something that invigorated me.”
The production is a joint collaboration with the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra, The University of Alabama Opera Theatre and The University of Alabama School of Music. Additionally, the Alabama State Council on the Arts provided financial support via a grant.
The idea for the opera began not long after Landers composed a requiem in honor of the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado victims.
For Landers, born and raised in Birmingham and an alumnus from the UA School of Music, the requiem made him reflect on what it meant to be a composer from Alabama and how he could honor his state’s history.
“You have to have a dream to believe in, and you have to think about something bigger than yourself. This opera is bigger than me, and I think that was important to think about as I did it,” said Landers.
Over the course of two acts, he aims to capture the resiliency of the Alabama sharecroppers Agee and Evans depicted decades later.
“There is an oppressive mood and idea. But the challenge is, through the music, telling the story of how these people overcame this oppression,” said Landers.
“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” will make its premiere at UA’s Moody Concert Hall on Oct. 21. Alabama Public Television will do a special rebroadcast of the opera and will then stream the piece via its website for three years.
Though the curtain has yet to close on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Landers already has plans for another opera rooted in his home state.
“The interesting thing – people have a greater connection with an opera if it’s about them, if it’s about where they live. Even if it’s just the people in Alabama I’m reaching, it’s incredibly important to me that I can tell the story of the state through this very powerful medium,” he said. “If I just write operas about Alabama for the rest of my life, I’d be very satisfied, to be honest with you.”