NEW CHAMBER MUSIC
IMMIGRATION AND MOB JUSTICE IN AMERICA
Prologue: “New Orleans is overrun.” WILLIAM PARKERSON bemoans the influx of “tramps and paupers” who flood the city to replace slave labor. Parkerson and the "good people of New Orleans" (ENSEMBLE) implores the city’s Sicilian residents to “dig out the criminals of your race.”
First Scene: October 15, 1890; just before midnight. DAVID HENNESSY and BILLY O’CONNOR stroll through a sultry evening mist. Hennessy sings an aria of his city, one’s path through its grime and struggle, and his expansive future plans, now that he’s on the other side. (“Nothing like the October air in New Orleans”). The two shake hands and part ways. Gunfire rends the night; a bloodied, staggering Hennessy curses and fires at his hidden assailants, then calls out to his friend before collapsing.
Hennessy: They gave it to me, Billy. And I gave it back the best I could.
O’Connor coolly: Who did this?
Hennessy strains to whisper in O’Connor’s ear as the lights fade.
Second Scene: Piccola Palermo, the Sicilian ghetto; that same night. IANIA COSTA enters, looking for her financè, “Mani.” Iania and CATARINA bicker about their ties to Sicily and their future in their new home. MAMA COSTA and ZIA FRANCESCA interrupt the argument with startling news - Mama was assaulted earlier in the day, with vile epithets thrown at her by women and children. The four women consider la via vecchia, the old family traditions brought from Sicily, and la via nuova, a completely new way of life in America. Mama, Zia and Caterina leave Iania alone, wrestling with the question of how to honor the old ways while embracing the new (“But at night, I’m afraid”).
EMMANUELLE POLIZZI, enters hurriedly with a bundle under his arm, manic ideas about his future, and a locket for Iania. Suddenly, a gun drops from Polizzi’s bundle, and Iania is terrified. He calms her, and they sing to each other about their fears, hopes, and how they must cling to each other to survive (“With only you can I live”).
Third Scene: Charity Hospital; October 16, 1890, just before 1AM. O’Connor and a few policemen (Ensemble) barge in, carrying a mortally wounded Hennessy. Nurses (Ensemble) begin to attend to the Chief. WILLIAM PARKERSON enters and tries to get Hennessy to publicly identify the assailants. Hennessy brushes him off.
MARGARET HENNESSY enters, and rushes to her son’s bedside. They share a tender moment as Parkerson and O’Connor retreat to a corner of the room.
Parkerson: ...what did he say?
Parkerson: Did anyone else hear?
O’Connor: Does it matter?
Margaret clasps her rosary, pondering the Mater dolorosa (“What can a mother say?”). Overheard by Hennessy and his mother, Parkerson and O’Connor declare that Sicilians are responsible and a price must be paid.
Fourth Scene: Piccola Palermo; October 16 1890, just before dawn. Polizzi is agitated. Iania tries to calm him, singing a Sicilian lullaby. She tells him about her mother’s assault, and broaches the subject of leaving New Orleans to start anew. Polizzi rejects the idea, fearing a break up of the family and the dangers that may lie outside the city. They hear voices in the tenement - shouts, commands, shock. O’Connor and a few policemen (Ensemble) burst into the apartment, arrest Polizzi, and threaten Iania. As they take him away, Mama and the Sicilian women pray to St. Joseph - patron of Sicily - for protection. Stunned, Iania weeps and is swept up in their prayer. (optional intermission)
Fifth Scene: Orleans Parish Prison; October 16 1890, just after sunrise. Bored Policemen (Ensemble) gossip about the Chief’s shooting (“It must be true”). They quiet down as O’Connor enters, crossing directly to a cell holding Polizzi. O’Connor accuses him of being a foot soldier of organized crime. Polizzi accuses O’Connor of corruption, saying he deserves equal suspicion. O'Connor recounts a dream about Sicilian immigrants being loaded onto a ship, which is then swallowed by the sea. (“Last night I had a beautiful dream”).
Unseen by Polizzi, Iania enters to beg for his release. O’Connor corners her and she agrees to a bargain, taking the police back to her tenement to hand over Polizzi’s gun in exchange for leniency and, potentially, liberty for both of them. Iania asks O'Connor to give Polizzi the locket, proving that she was there. After she leaves, O'Connor dangles the locket before Polizzi, telling him that she has betrayed him. Refusing to accept it, Polizzi’s rage dissolves into despair as he wonders if he will ever see her again (“I will wait”).
Sixth Scene: Charity Hospital; October 16, 1890, mid-morning. Hennessy, on his deathbed (“In, out… clumsy lugs”), flashes back to the violent death of his father - also a policeman. The tragedy left him and his mother destitute, setting him on a rocky path that led to the city’s upper echelons. He hears the whispers around him, eagerly awaiting his impending martyrdom, but he will not satisfy them. By keeping the identity of his murderers to himself, he will attain the most power through the memory of his deeds.
He dies, and the scene transforms into St. Joseph’s Church; October 17 1890. Hennessy’s funeral is the largest the city has ever seen. The congregation sings the Requiem, and Margaret reflects on the death of her child (“Mary watched her child on a tree”). Parkerson’s eulogy shifts tone; there are cries for retribution and the congregation sings the Dies irae.
There is a time jump as the investigation and subsequent legal machinations begin in earnest. During this time, the city's attention is occupied with other things, especially Mardi Gras.
Seventh Scene: Piccola Palermo; March 14, 1891. The trial of Sicilain men - including Polizzi - for the Chief’s assasination has gone to the Jury, and the city waits. Iania sees the path before Polizzi - New Orleans will not rest until Sicilian blood flows. She questions the wisdom of her loyalty, resolving to strike out from the city without him (“I could not stay there any longer”).
Mama, Zia and Caterina burst into the room with the news that the Sicilians have been acquitted, and the anger of the city runs hot. Iania tells them to gather everyone in the tenement; they will greet Polizzi when he emerges from prison.
In the Parish Prison, a victory song rings out - loud and triumphant - amongst Polizzi and other Sicilian men (Ensemble). At the statue of Henry Clay, O'Connor whips the citizens of New Orleans into frenzy, Parkerson egging him on. The musics clash violently.
From his cell, Polizzi hears the sound of an approaching crowd and believes it to be his countrymen, coming to bring them home. Above it, he thinks he hears Iania’s lullaby and he calls out to her. Her music fades, drowned out by the crowd. Now hearing drums, he realizes that the crowd’s song is not jubilant, but righteous, and calling for vengeance. He can hear voices inside the prison: shouts, commands, shock. Men with guns (Ensemble) - O’Connor among them - enter his cell. There is a moment of calm as Polizzi and O’Connor regard each other. Then, the men raise their weapons and cut Polizzi down as the lights black out.
Epilogue: There is a jarring calm after the terror of the lynching. Lights slowly reveal the Ensemble, singing a lilting song about tides, light, and power. They engage in a call and response with four principals: O’Connor will continue on his path of consuming power; Margaret wanders the chapels of the city, looking for God; Parkerson engages on a national speaking tour to bear testimony to the lynching. Iania reflects on the horror that has destroyed her life. She wonders if Mani’s soul will now fly to new realms and if he will be as unwelcome there as he was on earth. She wonders if the promise of Heaven will be as empty as the promise of America.
The entire cast sings the final lines of Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus”:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
END OF THE OPERA