When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you've ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate, and understanding person you've ever met, and then you learn the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true - it probably is too good to be true! Don't give up your education, your hopes, and ambitions to follow a rainbow.
- JEANNIE MILLS, WHO ESCAPED THE PEOPLE'S TEMPLE IN 1975 AND WAS MYSTERIOUSLY MURDERED WITH HER FAMILY IN 1980.
I've never been a fan of Kool-Aid, but my objection waxed massive when that nutty Jim Jones force-fed a cyanide cocktail to nearly 1,000 of his devotees. I've watched that made-for-TV, Powers Boothe movie a dozen times - there's something both frightening and fascinating about it. The trouble with this saga is that Jones really did have good intentions in the beginning. He ran an interracial mission for the sick, homeless, and unemployed. He preached a gospel of social and racial equality in a time and place when jerks were still riding around wearing bedsheets. He established a free health clinic and a drug rehab program. So, when exactly did the power trip begin? And why didn't more of his followers run like rabbits?
I've never been a fan of opera either, but not because it's deeply foul. I've just never had the gumption to explore its bliss. Until now. Two local fellas, composer Harold Farberman and librettist Andrew Joffe, have combined their love of opera with their love of cult phenomenon, and the end result is the completely original "The Song of Eddie," which enjoys its world premiere at Bard's Fisher Center this month.
An opera about cults? Why not? Weird perhaps, but so what. It certainly won't be boring. I speak in future tense because, unfortunately, I don't get to see or hear one speck of it before this column goes to print, as rehearsals are in New York City after my deadline. So, here I sit in silence, with just the libretto on paper and my fertile imagination. But here's the skinny anyway:
This modern-day, two-act opera is centered around a group of wounded individuals whose destinies become entangled with a charismatic messiah dude named Eddie, who promises to fulfill their desires and bear their burdens. In his prophecy, he tells of a great storm which will destroy the world, and he gives his followers special Superman-caliber garments for protection. There's a little romance going on, as one of the women characters is torn between her love for Eddie and her nonbeliever, charlatan-suspicious boyfriend. Two other male characters, a homosexual and a priest, have conflicting sexual issues. Add to the mix a frustrated academic and a diseased CEO. Eddie tells them that they can come as damaged goods and be made whole. As each of the arias unfolds, it's clear that Eddie is a complete sham, but he's feeding the people enough kernels of truth to sell his idea for the end of the world, with him as the new leader.
I won't say how this opera ends, because I don't appreciate spoilers, but let's just say it ain't pretty, and these suckers just go right on being suckers. And it was those typical, enthralling cult topics - the human dynamics of power, a need to connect with something greater than ourselves, the blindness of intelligent, rational people - that sucked in Farberman and Joffe individually.
"I've always been fascinated by people who believe the unbelievable," says Farberman. "It should've seemed obvious to the people waiting for the Hale-Bopp comet, and on the face of it you'd say it's ridiculous. I mean, how can anyone believe it? Yet when you hear, and see, and experience the people who are sold on it, you begin to wonder what's real and what isn't. They're all intelligent people. Yet everyone has a need, and the charismatic figurehead supplies for them whatever that is. That's what the world is all about. Everyone's looking for an answer to their perceived fallibilities, for that charismatic leader to answer all their questions."
Joffe relates the story of an upstate New York cult I hadn't heard about, the Millerites, which formed over 150 years ago. Farmer William Miller had a revelation, or worked out through the Bible that Jesus was going to return in June 1843. The world would end, believers would be taken up, and the apocalypse would take place. His followers sold all their belongings, gathered together in fields in June - all across America - and they waited. Nothing happened. Miller told them his math was off, and that the end was actually supposed to come in 1844. And they all came back a second time. Nothing happened.