Arts / Performing Arts

New Civil War Spy Drama Shows Houston Grand Opera’s Unparalleled Power to Bring New Works to Life — Intelligence Defies Ordinary Conventions

A Sister Story, a Tale of Racism and a Powerful Dance Statement

BY // 10.19.23

Somewhere between what we know of the past, what we think we know and what we might never know for certain lies a murky place with fertile ground for art to bloom. Such is the history of Civil War spies Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Jane Bowser and the world premiere opera Intelligence inspired by their lives.

Created by composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer and director/choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Intelligence springs from a union of real history and operatic imagination. 

The Houston Grand Opera commissioned Intelligence, which mines both historical fact and the unknown to create a new kind of opera, for a run that premieres this Friday, October 20 and runs through November 3 at the Wortham Center. 

History and even Ulysses S. Grant himself record that Elizabeth Van Lew, from a prominent Richmond, Virginia family, ran a spy ring that gave vital intelligence to the Union. History also records Mary Jane Bowser was born into slavery in the Van Lew household, yet was later sent to the North to be educated, traveled to Liberia as a missionary and then returned to Virginia. After the war, Van Lew gave speeches about her time as spy for the Union. What history does not record but some historians have theorized is that Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Jane Bowser were half sisters. 

“It’s historical fiction. I completely acknowledge that,” Scheer tells PaperCity about Intelligence. “But there’s enough truth about the spy ring, about her relationship and these pivotal things about Mary Jane’s life. These were the things that prompted me into thinking of a story that might have happened.”

Center, Janai Brugger Right, Jamie Barton
Intelligence stars Janai Brugger as Mary Jane Bowser and Jamie Barton as Elizabeth Van Lew. (Photo by Michael Bishop)

Heggie and Scheer have collaborated on several acclaimed operas and new works — including three for Houston Grand Opera — and it was while at a public event in Washington D.C for their Iconic Legacies song cycle that a Smithsonian docent came up to Heggie with an idea for an opera. The docent then recounted some of the story of Van Lew and Bowser.

Bering's Gifts

  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023
  • Bering's Gift's November 2023

Heggie and Scheer were so intrigued by these real lives, that Scheer set off on a multi-year research project to find out more. 

“When I dug deeper it really became a story of these two women and their relationship,” Scheer says. “That’s the thing that peaked my interest. What was the relationship between these two women?

“Because that seemed to reflect on not just that time but our time today this relationship between an affluent white women and this Black women who was enslaved to the family but then freed.”

In the opera’s narrative, Elizabeth sends Mary Jane into the Confederate White House to hide in plain sight as an enslaved worker, but her real objective is to gather intelligence for the Union. While there she also discover truths about her own history which changes her relationship with Elizabeth.

“I thought it was interesting to have a person, Elizabeth, who is doing all the right things but there’s a fundamental lie that she’s living with in order to protect her family,” Scheer says. “It becomes an exploration of racism.

“But not from a self-evident racist but from a person who doesn’t understand the extent of to which the power structure is embedded in their being.”

The Music and Dance Of Intelligence

Talking with Scheer it becomes apparent that on a multitude of levels, Intelligence will be unique beyond its use of real history, beginning with Heggie’s music. 

“One of the things astounding to me in this work are the ensembles that Jake has created,” Scheer says. “I created them on the page, but what he’s done with the music for them I think are just extraordinary.”

That includes the layering of the voices within the work.

“That’s something that opera can do that other art forms can’t,” Scheer says. “Having people sing simultaneously, singing the same words but meaning different things. The ensembles in this are just some of the best things I’ve ever heard Jake do and that’s saying a lot because he’s written such incredible music through his life.”

Dance will also be used in Intelligence in a way never seen in classic opera. Early in the process of building the work, Heggie and Scheer knew they had to bring in another voice, an African-American collaborator who they wanted to direct. It was also early on when Scheer realized he wanted dance to become a fundamental part of Intelligence. 

“The idea of using dance became a visceral and wonderful way of exploring the story,” he says.

Far Left J’Nai Bridges, Left Janai Brugger, with Urban Bush Women Dancer Bianca Leticia Medina
Urban Bush Women Dancer Bianca Leticia Medina (J’Nai Bridges and Janai Brugger in background) in the world premiere opera Intelligence. (Photo by Michael Bishop)

The importance of dance led them to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women and a MacArthur Fellowship recipient (aka The Genius Grant). Intelligence is Zollar’s first time directing an opera, but Scheer says her vision, the design team and the Urban Bush Women dancers she’s assembled has helped them explore new directors for opera as a form. 

“It’s the vocabulary of Urban Bush Women, these powerful women, and Jawole’s vocabulary I’ve never seen in a grand opera before,” Scheer says. “They’ve become both important in terms of a narrative function but also throughout the piece they are the subconscious of the characters onstage.”

Scheer also says this world premiere could only happen in Houston as an HGO commission.

“This is their 75th world premiere, and it’s an extraordinary record of creation,” he notes. “More than any company in the country they’ve been on the cutting edge of creating new works.

“They’ve created these incredible opportunities for people to explore the possibilities of opera.”

Houston Grand Opera’s production of Intelligence opens this Friday, October 20 and runs through November 3 at the Wortham Center. 

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