‘Freedom and Fire!’ an Opera about Civil War, UA Premieres Sept. 29

  • September 20th, 2016

Editors/Producers Note: “Freedom and Fire! A Civil War Story” has its world premiere Sept. 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Bryant-Jordan Hall on The University of Alabama campus. An encore performance will be held at Bryant-Jordan Hall Oct. 2 at 3 p.m.

Professor Paul Houghtaling, director of opera theatre and associate professor of voice
Dr. Paul Houghtaling

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The year was 1865, and the American Civil War was five days from coming to an end.

But five days wasn’t soon enough.

On the morning of April 4, Union troops marched on The University of Alabama – a Confederate military school at the time – and burned it to the ground.

Everything was destroyed except four buildings: Maxwell Hall observatory, a guardhouse, the 1829 Gorgas House and the President’s Mansion.

As Union troops began to torch the mansion, Louisa Frances Garland, the wife of then-UA president Landon Garland, stopped them.

She didn’t shoot them, and she didn’t incapacitate them by knocking them upside the head with a candlestick. She just talked with them, and they put the fire out.

When Dr. Paul Houghtaling, director of UA’s Opera Theatre and an associate professor of voice, first heard of Louisa Garland’s exploits concerning the mansion, he was fascinated, and the wheels in his operatic mind began to turn.

Dr. Robin Behn
Dr. Robin Behn

“It’s so theatrical to think about a woman, while her husband was off fighting with the Confederate army, saying to the Union soldiers, ‘don’t you burn down this house,’” Houghtaling said. ‘You’ve burned down the campus and destroyed everything in your path, but don’t burn this house. This is where I raised my family. This is where I raised my children.’”

“And, they listened to her. How incredible is it that this woman was able to use the right words to ask them to spare this house? Apparently she asked them to bring the furniture back in the house, and they did so. … It seems so theatrical, like ‘Gone With The Wind.’”

As a 30-year opera veteran, the story of how Louisa Garland saved the mansion became like Luciano Pavarotti performing “Nessun dorma” in Houghtaling’s ears, and he began to set in motion events that would turn that corner of UA’s history into an opera.

Houghtaling is the opera’s director, Dr. Robin Behn, UA professor of English, is its librettist – a script writer for an opera – and Dr. Amir Zaheri, the director of contemporary ensemble and a UA assistant professor of composition in the department of music, is the composer.

Houghtaling said he waited until 2016 to complete the creation of the opera and premiere it because it’s the 175th anniversary of the building of the president’s mansion.

Dr. Amir Zaheri
Dr. Amir Zaheri

Following the UA premiere, the plan is for it to be performed around the world.

“I’m thrilled that we are going to have the opportunity to stage our original production and highlight the University,” Behn said. “I think it’s a chance for people who don’t always go to opera to really enjoy seeing their first opera.”

Tickets for “Freedom and Fire! A Civil War Story” are $20 for general admission and $5 for students. They can be purchased at uamusic.tix.com.

The School of Music is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards included Rhodes and Goldwater scholarships.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.