l-r: Andrew Gilstrap, Minka Wiltz, and Kevin Thompson in "Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier)" at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center. (Credit: Raftermen)

96-Hour Opera Festival showcases a commissioned premiere, announces winners of 2024 competition

Mark Gresham | 21 JUN 2024

Atlanta, GA— The Atlanta Opera hosted the third annual 96-Hour Opera Festival, a unique event challenging composers and librettists to create and stage original 10-minute operas within just four days. The festival, held in partnership with Morehouse College School of Music, featured events on Saturday, June 15, and Monday, June 17, culminating in a judged competition.

Opera Premiere: Forsyth County is Flooding

On June 15, the festival opened with the world premiere of “Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier)” by composer Marcus Norris and librettist Adamma Ebo. The opera, performed at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College, was commissioned by The Atlanta Opera due to Norris and Ebo winning the 2022 96-Hour Opera competition, two years ago.

Much like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the antagonist in this one-act opera is a non-human entity: Lake Sidney Lanier, which the composer and librettist pose as being haunted. And there, the parallel ends.

Haunted how? The notes by Norris point to an increasing number of deaths year by year in Lake Lanier and that people who know this might have an instinctive drive to want to know why. Despite many rational explanations, the opera’s creators want us to be skeptical of those and take up a metaphysical one based on a correlation between an increasing number of deaths on the Lake and increased flooding in Forsyth County.


In his program notes, Norris rejects the notions of either a God-perpetrated Old Testament-styled divine wrath or a “force of nature” when he writes:

“The problem with this theory is that God and Nature had nothing to do with this. Lake Lanier is entirely man-made. We’re to blame here. What’s more, the lake was only formed in 1912.”

But that is where Norris and Ebo curiously commit a factual error, conflating two critical sets of historical events that occurred decades apart.

Lake Sidney Lanier was created by completing the Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River in 1956, not 1912. Built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not local or state authorities, one of its primary purposes was downstream flood control, which mainly protects metro Atlanta. Only three major flooding events have occurred downstream since its construction. It also supplies the majority of Atlanta with water, as well as the cities of Buford and Gainesville.

Buford Dam at the southern end of Lake Sidney Lanier, constructed in 1956. (credit: United States Army Corps of Engineers)

Buford Dam at the southern end of Lake Sidney Lanier, constructed in 1956. (credit: United States Army Corps of Engineers)

But before the reservoir’s groundbreaking in 1950, the town of Oscarville, a small Black community, was located in an area now submerged by the lake. The creation of Lake Lanier resulted in the forced displacement of all 1,100 of its residents, at the time, about 10% of the county’s residents.

The buildings and other structures in Oscarville were not demolished before the area was flooded, creating debris hazards that have contributed to the subsequent death rate in the lake. More tellingly, several cemeteries were not relocated and remain at the bottom of the lake today. (And we all know cemeteries play well in stories of hauntings.)

The year 1912 does have its significance, even though it was not when the lake was formed: It was a year of intense racial tensions in Forsyth County. That September, two alleged attacks on white women led to the accusation of Black men as suspects.

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Following the first incident, a Black preacher was beaten for making disparaging remarks about the victim, and law enforcement moved several arrested suspects to Atlanta for safety; the case was later dropped.

Following the second attack, a 16-year-old Black boy was linked to the crime, confessed under duress, and implicated others. Rob Edwards, one of the arrested men, was lynched by a mob. The teenager and another alleged accomplice were convicted by an all-white jury and publicly executed. Subsequently, a group called “Night Riders” terrorized Black residents, forcing an estimated 98% of them to flee the county.

The flooding of Oscarville and the 1912 racial issues are conflated in the opera’s plot, beginning in Scene 5, as the cause of the haunting of Lake Lanier, introduced in what felt like a somewhat oblique manner to this native Atlanta observer who is familiar with the basic history behind them.

But we need to go to the beginning to get there. There is an instrumental overture and several subsequent interludes throughout, with interpretive dance moves by AC Wilson and Sakinah Bennett (who also play minor characters named Oscar and Jane). The story begins in Scene 1 with the proposal that mysterious puddles are showing up around Forsyth County. We are introduced to Odella Syrus (Minka Wiltz), the office secretary to Mayor John Johns (Andrew Gilstrap). On one side, we see Bully (Marnie Breckenridge) and Butter (Ronnita Miller), who cannot be seen at first by other characters, as they are the ghosts of persons who died decades ago.

l-r: Ronnita Miller, Marnie Breckenridge, and Sakinah Bennett. (credit: Raftermen)

l-r: Ronnita Miller, Marnie Breckenridge, and Sakinah Bennett. (credit: Raftermen)

This exposition finally introduces Church Jenkins (Kevin Thompson), a rationalist private investigator with a cowboy hat and somewhat Western air about him who resents that his mother named him “Church.” While he is not the story’s antagonist, he does serve as a foil to “spiritual” causation for much of the plot. By contrast, we learn that Odella is a “gray witch” with a different idea about causation, a type tasked with balancing natural and spiritual forces. Mayor Johns is a traditional Southern Protestant Christian and thus represents Forsyth County’s traditional civic and social norm in such matters.

Odella and Church are both tasked by Mayor Johns to solve the source of the puddle problem. As the story continues, we learn that the water in the mysterious puddles, by analysis, matches the chemistry of that in Lake Lanier. Questions arise between Church and Odella about beliefs: rationality, rituals, and superstition. And, of course, the story takes place in the Bible Belt, so we must have a scene about traditional religion and civic pride in Forsyth County, as expounded by Mayor Johns.

(It must be noted here that, oddly, the opera’s libretto refers to Johns as the Mayor of Forsyth County, even though such a county office does not exist in Georgia except in a “unified government” such as Athens-Clarke County, an anomaly—a Mayor is a city official. The use of town and county throughout the libretto seem random, as if they were somehow interchangeable.)


By the end of Scene 4, at the shore of Lake Lanier, Odella puts her foot in the water, at which point she and Church are shocked to see the previously invisible ghosts of Bully and Butter, who are equally surprised that they can be seen. The bottom falls out from under them all, and the scene “floods” in the ensuing interlude, named “Lake Turkana” (evidently after the eponymous saline lake on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia in east Africa), bringing us to Scene 5, which is as if underwater in Lake Lanier, which then brings into play the conflated histories of 1912 Forsyth County and the much later flooding of Oscarville (though the town is left unnamed in the opera), as the source of the haunting of the lake and the supernatural cause of the increasing threat of flooding in Forsyth, and the contemporary increases in the death rate on the lake: perhaps an act of intergenerational justice retribution from the souls of those whose bodies are still buried in the cemeteries submerged under the lake when it as built? An act of balancing pent-up spiritual (and social) forces?

That leaves our gray witch, Odella, with the unenviable task of balancing the contending spiritual forces of retribution and forgiveness, now represented verbally by the ghosts of Butter and Bully, respectively. Odella recognizes that the pain and imbalance could destroy Forsyth.

In the final scene, Odella finds herself back on the lake shore with Church and Mayor Johns. Butter and Bully soon join them. We hear five different perspectives at once in a vocal quintet as the music draws to a climax, and then Odella, solo, weighs her decision. Will she, as a gray witch, use her natural magic to save Forsyth from flooding? Her words outline the big question:

“And if I don’t? Ain’t sayin’ I won’t. Why mercy now when it’s raining down? And I just might, ’cause two wrongs ain’t right. But why righteous now? Why right this town?”

The cast freezes, and the stage symbolically “floods” as the orchestra alone plays “The Curse.” After a long pause, the orchestra (ably led by Chaowen Ting) then makes a final, quiet statement.

Draw your own conclusions from that, but there is a traditional historical response to the situation in Judeo-Christian foundations of western jurisprudence that is key to our justice system, perhaps best expressed in Ezekiel 18:19-20 (New International Version):

Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

Yet intergenerational retribution and reparation are often demanded in current-day social justice movements, asserting that people of today are somehow fully accountable for the acts of their ancestors. That runs at a cross-grain with fundamental American enlightenment notions of justice inherited from the Biblical one in Ezekiel. And yet it is hardly a new idea; rather one that is culturally older for which the sentiment expressed in Ezekiel and in Deuteronomy 24:16 is one of humane progress for its day:

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.

Those conflicting ideologies about justice are at the core of “political and social change” issues raised in our current times.

It’s important to point out that, contrary to words Odella sings (“Why mercy now?”), the statements in Ezekiel and Deuteronomy are not at all about “mercy”—they are about justice, in that punishing the living for the deeds of their ancestors (by bloodline or just collectively as an identifiable group) is not justice. That idea doesn’t sit well with some contemporary forces for social change.

This opera poses that conflict, but as with Odella, it’s up to you to decide how to deal with it. You don’t have to be a witch to do so.

Winners of the Competitive Performances Announced

The 96-Hour Opera Festival’s 2024 competitive performances took place on June 17, featuring five teams of composers and librettists who had crafted operas centered on the theme of Artificial Intelligence. Kitty Brazelton and Vaibu Mohan emerged as the winners with their work Water Memory, a narrative exploring the use of AI to assist individuals with dementia. Their victory earned them the $10,000 Antinori Foundation Grand Prize and a commission from The Atlanta Opera to create a chamber opera.

The competition also recognized What is Love? An AI Story by composer Timothy Amukele and librettist Jarrod Lee as the Runner-Up. This opera, questioning whether androids can learn to love, was also named the Audience Favorite, reflecting its broad appeal among attendees.

The remaining finalists, including teams of George Tsz-Kwan Lam and David Davila, Evan Williams and Ashlee Haze, and Lauren McCall and Mo Holmes, each received a $1,000 honorarium. The festival provided travel, housing, and rehearsal resources, supported by The Atlanta Opera and Morehouse College.

Participants were selected from the largest applicant pool in the festival’s history. Teams arrived with their compositions ready and spent the next 96 hours rehearsing with assigned singers and music directors. The event featured mentorship from industry leaders such as Carlos Simon, Andrea Pinkney, Tazewell Thompson, Paul Remo, Doug Hooker, and Tomer Zvulun, who also served as judges.

International opera star and Grammy Award-winning vocalist Morris Robinson reprised his role as artistic director, continuing his tradition of guiding the festival since its inception. The 96-Hour Opera Project received support from the UPS Foundation, Coca-Cola Foundation, The Rich Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the City of Atlanta. The Antinori Foundation funded the Grand Prize.

For more information about the composers, librettists, and judges, visit atlantaopera.org/festival


About the author:
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. He began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.

Read more by Mark Gresham.
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