Considering Matthew Shepard: A Conversation with Dr. Lynch
Dr. Shane Lynch is the choral director at Washington and Lee and has been working on the Considering Matthew Shepard project for over two years.
Q: What inspired you to undergo this journey in having the University Singers perform Considering Matthew Shepard and go on tour with it?
A: I first saw the work performed in 2017. It was one of the first performances of the work that was for a conference of college choral directors that I was at, and I was very moved by the work. I grew up in Montana, my wife grew up in Wyoming, we had just gotten married and lived just across the bo
rder in Colorado; we had just been in Laramie, Wyoming, when Matt was kidnapped and beaten. And so it’s a story that we have known for a very long time -- we’re only slightly older than he was, we had a lot of friends that were at the University of Wyoming, so we all ran in the same circles. And it’s been a national story, but it’s a story that has been with us for a long time. So when I saw the performance at LSU in 2017 it was definitely something that I felt needed to be done here, especially since W&L is trying to push towards a broader, more diverse and more inclusive campus. It’s the sort of work that really matters and needs to be done.
Q: What has been your own experience with Matthew Shepard’s story and how has it affected you beyond your proximity to the situation?
A: When Matt died in 1998, it resonated for the country in so many ways because it was such a senseless act. It’s always a tragedy when anyone dies and it’s especially always a tragedy when someone young dies. But there was just a pointlessness to his death that was dramatic—that caused a lot of soul-searching from a lot of people in the US. When I saw the piece in 2017, I think the movement that hit me the most was the I Am Like You movement, which is a solo quartet. They’re singing in what’s called quartal harmony, an advanced 20th century composition technique that makes us feel just kind of uneasy because it’s what we would normally hear but it’s just slightly off the entire time, and people don’t know quite why it’s there. The text of the general ideas that permeated the general culture, especially the culture that I grew up with in Montana, that allowed it to be okay. Hate is a learned thing, and it’s not necessarily the people who perform heinous acts that you have to really consider yourself with: most people who are going to perform heinous acts are going to perform them regardless, but it’s those of us who tacitly provide permission for them to do it, and even if you don’t mean it that way, they’re mentally unbalanced, and they take steps that normal people wouldn’t take, but when you’re finding that tacit approval and tacit permission, that’s where hate fosters. And I think for the country, at least for people I knew in the country at that time and for myself, there was a lot of soul-searching on “alright, this has happened, and now we have to ask ourselves why.” And I think that’s part of the reason that it really did become such a national media story at the time.
Q: What did you think would be the biggest challenge with bringing CMS to Lexington and the University Singers, and did that match what was actually the biggest challenge?
A: I think the biggest challenge in bringing it honestly was logistical. It’s an enormous undertaking, and being able to do it and do it properly requires a lot of resources and time and energy and effort. And that most definitely has proven to be one of the hardest things. I think the second hardest thing is just the content of the piece. While the piece does end on a very optimistic note, you have to go through a lot of darkness to get to that point. For so many people who sing in the choir program here, it is their reprieve, their moment of being able to focus on a different part of education and a different part of their soul, to think about other things. And when you’re doing stuff that’s taking you through that darkness it won’t always be the case, in rehearsing, and so I knew that was going to be a challenge. There’s just a couple of movements that, I’ll be honest, are an important part of the story, but I don’t like them. They deal with ugly parts of humanity, and it’s important that we address and deal with ugly parts of humanity, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable to go through the process, and that’s been true for the students and for me too.
Q: There are certain movements that were cut from the whole oratorio. What were the reasons for cutting them other than the time?
A: The number one reason for cutting them is just that it’s a logistical consideration. If you do the entire oratorio, it’s almost two hours without an intermission; it’s very long. If you read the initial reviews of the work when Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson’s choir was performing it, they’re very positive in general, but they have two main comments that come back and one of them is just the length of the work. Having seen the work multiple times, it’s very long. If me, a choral nerd, is sitting in the audience going “this is long,” then your average audience member is really going to think that. So getting the piece down to a more manageable length was an important process. Also, again, logistics was at work: we only had so many weeks to learn this, and we had to pare down what we were going to learn, because there just wasn’t enough time to learn all of the music without making major sacrifices in other areas of the academic year that I didn’t think were appropriate to make. And the other big critique is that it tends to tread on the same ground a few times; in particular there are two recitations that say virtually the same thing. So that within the length of the piece kind of makes the piece grind to a halt a little bit. Once we took a few movements out and restructured it, it gave the piece a little more narrative flow. There are a few movements in the work, too, that are challenging, perhaps in a way that is not productive and are a little problematic. It became clear, with the movements that are problematic and the length of the work, that the cuts could come relatively quickly.
Q: What is the part of the project that has been the most meaningful to you and that you’ve enjoyed the most? A: For me, the best part of it has been that throughout the year, I have had hundreds of small conversations with people who are part of the project, who all have different points of view and different thoughts about what we’re doing. Some are in wholly and in favor of what we’re doing, and some think that maybe it isn’t the right direction for us to be going. There’s a whole host of opinions and ideas on this, but I really appreciated the very thoughtful commentary that has come out, and I’ve enjoyed all of those conversations, though they’ve been hard. They’re difficult conversations, because we are dealing with a lot of stuff that’s hard that we should be doing: we should be having the hard conversations even if we fumble through them a little bit. So I’ve really enjoyed that part of the process because I think it’s allowed for a level of community and conversation that really isn’t possible any other way.
Q: We have one singer in CMS who is not a current member of the choir, and that is Jake Burnett, who has the solo of The Fence (for that night’s cast). Can you elaborate on why you chose him and why that particular solo is not one of the current members of the University Singers?
A: Jake is a 2017 graduate of Washington and Lee, he was a music major doing vocal performance while he was here, and he’s very skilled. There are a couple of movements in CMS that are just beyond an undergraduate level. Craig Hella Johnson was writing for his professional choir in Dallas and he was writing for a particular baritone in a couple of movements who was a phenomenal singer. Asking a 20- or 21-year-old singer to sing those parts is just not realistic, and there’s no way to really cover that properly. And I knew that if I was going to do the piece I was going to have to be creative in covering two of the solos, in particular, that are vital parts of the work that you can’t do with just undergraduate singers. And so then it became a question of how we went about it. We could have gone about it in different ways: we could have hired out a professional opera singer or something, but I wanted a singer that wasn’t too far in age from the members of the choir, even though it needed to be someone a little older to be able to handle the vocal challenges of the piece. Jake, once it came to those sorts of things, getting someone out of the University Singers family was always important, because they understand what we do here and how our program works. Jake himself is one of the most empathetic singers I have ever seen, especially on a stage with his musical theater work. He always connects with the audience and with the text in a way and so again thinking of The Fence, that maternal nature of that piece, there was no one better. Jake was my first choice, it wasn’t even close.
Q: There is some confusion as to why we flew to Colorado, but only performed in DC and Richmond. Can you speak to that a little bit?
A: Because again, logistics played a part of this as well; it is a large and demanding work that required a level of extra rehearsal that we don’t have before we normally leave before February tour, and it’s a larger logistical challenge to perform the piece. We had offers to perform the piece while we were in Colorado and Wyoming that I turned down. I think anyone who saw how the tech load in and setup worked for the piece understands how unrealistic that was. Beyond that, I think that they are different areas of this country and so much of the story was centered around where [Matt] was at. Growing up in Montana, it’s different. The states are all the same, but there are different pockets in the world. Matt’s story is very much a story of where he was at, as much as anything else. And so the chance to be able to go out to Colorado and try to get to Wyoming, which Mother Nature didn’t actually allow us to follow through with, to be able to work with members of the Matthew Shepard Foundation in a more retreat-like setting just allows us to be able to tackle so much of the heavy lifting that this piece requires that goes beyond just the performing of it. The performing of it did need to be close to home, because logistically there weren’t really options that would let us do it any other way.
Q: Can you speak to why, specifically, we were in DC and Richmond for our tour performances?
A: The Matthew Shepard Foundation was an important part of this. In our new University strategic plan, the number one plan is fostering a greater diversity and inclusiveness on our campus. Because W&L is talking about sending leaders out into the world, we need to be leaders in diversity and inclusiveness. Matthew Shepard Foundation’s ultimate goal is eradicating hate crime; that’s their number one purpose for existing. And the tireless lobbying of Judy and Dennis Shepard is what led to the James Byrd and Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act that was passed in 2009. And so as we are looking at our University strategic plan and we are also looking at what we’re trying to do with our students and with our education on campus, the overlap of the two was an obvious sort of thing, and we want to perform but we also want to try to do a little good in the world at the same time. The whole point is for W&L to be leaders in an area where historically, we have not been leaders as a campus. I think there are many members of the upper administration and the campus community who feel that we should be putting our best foot out there to try to do a little good in the world. So in areas like DC and Richmond, where hate crimes are a problem, are target areas for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, it’s important to be able to be present in those communities and being able to connect and hopefully provide a message of tolerance and inclusion, is really important.
Q: Aside from Matthew Shepard as a person and as a victim of a hate crime, what is this piece about?
A: I think the piece is about humanizing everyone. The piece spends time humanizing Matt, the piece spends time humanizing the men who killed him, the piece spends time humanizing the people who had reactions to that and how it played out, and really trying to view everyone through the lens of being human. And I think the piece more than anything else is about what it means for us to be humans together on this planet. Matt’s story is so tragic, but at the same time, so plain. Why did this story become the media sensation? Because tragic stories like this happen every day. And so more than anything, I think it is keeping that humanity in the world that the piece is about.
Q: What do you hope people gain from watching CMS?
A: When Jason Marsden, the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, started his talkback after all of our performances on tour, one of the first things he said each night is that the biggest thing is just to be nice. One of the choir members, when speaking, talked about compassion and being compassionate towards others. So much of hate and hate crime starts with people just not being nice to one another. And I think that if people come away from the work with that understanding that there are little steps that we can take to eradicate our hate, but one of the first ones is just to go about our world and be nice. Jason said all the time, it’s in all the little moments, when you get cut off in traffic for example, it’s all the small annoyances that happen where anger can come out, and that festers and grows into something else. It’s called Considering Matthew Shepard for a reason, and I think that consideration is the really important part for it. I hope that people can come away from it going, “You know what? I’m going to try my best to always be pleasant with the people around me.” We’re all human, and we’re all muckin’ through this world as best we can. You know the running joke that there aren’t any adults? We’re all doing the best we can and life is hard, and it’s hard for everyone. And if we can recognize that in our fellow humans and work to be nice to one another, that’s where we need to go.