Commissioned by the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University in association with the Music-Theatre Group

  • 2111/2110/3perc/pf/str
  • 11 male singers
  • Bar, T, B-Bar, S
  • 1 hr 40 min
  • the composer
  • English

Programme Note

Listen to Prologue from Crossing

Composer Note
What is it, then, between us?” With this resonant question at the climax of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman asks many things at once: what is his relationship to his contemporaries, his fellow men and women? What is his relationship to you, the reader, whoever you may be, whenever and wherever you may be reading his poem? And what is the relationship between the contradictory elements of his own self? The phrase “between us” itself has a double meaning: what is the relationship between us, and what stands between us, keeping us apart?

In the moment that Whitman asks this question, he is in a state of unknowing: he wants to know, and needs to know. Crossing emerges out of my sense that Whitman wrote his poetry out of need — that his poetry is not, or is not exclusively, a vigorous assertion of what he is, but rather the expression of a yearning to be what he is not, or to reconcile opposing aspects of his identity. The person/persona/personality “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs” is the living product of this need.

So, in Crossing, the Walt Whitman who walks the stage is not that familiar poetic persona. Rather, this is Whitman as I imagine he might have been to himself, starting from a midlife crisis which prompts his radical, heroic decision to drop everything and volunteer in war hospitals. Naturally, this Whitman is a fictional creation. Crossing is a musical fantasia which imagines and realizes the many forces — generosity, insecurity, longing, selflessness, bravery, unfulfilled sexual desire, a need to escape his own life, a boundless kindness — that caused a man named Walter Whitman, Jr. to forge an indelible embodiment of the American spirit in his poetry.

— Matthew Aucoin

Short synopsis
Crossing is an operatic fantasia based on Walt Whitman’s experiences as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. The opera delves into Whitman’s psyche, exploring what might have led a middle-aged New Yorker to drop everything and work in brutal conditions for years on end. Was it pure generosity, pure selflessness? Or did Whitman feel some need to escape his own life — or to know himself better by putting himself through a Dante-esque challenge?

Once in the hospital, Whitman strikes up a friendship with a volatile young soldier named John Wormley. As the war drags on, their relationship grows deeper and more complicated: Whitman never could have expected either the love or the betrayals that await him.


Full score
Vocal score


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