NEW CHAMBER MUSIC
IMMIGRATION AND MOB JUSTICE IN AMERICA
Fueled by resentment toward the growing influence of the Sicilian immigrant community, the ruling elite of New Orleans turn on the strangers in their midst. Rumors fly of the Sicilian’s secret “Stiletto” societies; blame is placed on members of the immigrant community for the assassination of the Chief of Police. After a hasty trial with no evidence, the Sicilian defendants are acquitted. Enraged, city leaders rally the populace. A mob advances on the prison where the men are being held and eleven of them are murdered, their bodies strewn across the prison yard and left hanging from tree branches.
This sad, true episode laid bare the power of violent anti-immigrant rhetoric in America. The horror of the lynching, however, was generally accepted across the country as an example of honorable justice and community protection.
This opera has duel themes - the complex and emotional foundations of xenophobia, its translation of fear into violence, and the ramifications on its victims and perpetrators, and the pursuit and loss of power, between classes, between individuals, and within a society. These themes remain particularly relevant. Global refugee crises continue unabated, as do the wide range of cultural and governmental responses, from acceptance and assimilation to violent rejection.
What a dramatization of this episode shows is that - almost word for word - the sentiments toward late-19th century immigration are the same that fuel contemporary nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric in America, the only difference being that Latinos and Muslims now fill the role held - in this instance - by Sicilians.
Mark Twain wrote: “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” One work of art is not enough to illuminate such sprawling injustice and human cruelty. By placing history on a level stage, however, society can examine and recognize the rhyming nature of our historical narratives.