The pen of Johanna Hall truly knows no bounds. Before she struck platinum pay dirt as the lyricist of such million-selling hits as "Still the One" and "Dance with Me" for her ex-husband John Hall's band Orleans, "Pearl" for Janis Joplin, and "Good Enough" for Bonnie Raitt, the Woodstock singer-songwriter wrote a music column for the Village Voice and contributed regularly to top rock publications like the late, great Crawdaddy!. And now she's rechanneled her golden gift for words to become a librettist, composing the lines for "Miracle in Bethlehem," a modern opera based on the story of the birth of Jesus Christ that will be performed this month by the venerated voices of area choral group Ars Choralis.
"We laughingly call it a 'popera' because of the tunefulness of the melodies," says Hall, herself an Ars Choralis member, who collaborated on the production's music with the group's conductor and artistic director, Barbara Pickhardt. "Barbara has written some gorgeous melodies. I could see [the project] on Broadway or as an animated film, but it is done in the recitative/aria style of opera. Maybe it's a hybrid. This has been an exciting new medium for me, with my love of storytelling and roots in the theater."
Hall's theatrical and arts-journalism roots sprouted from being around her father, a professional drama critic who often brought her along to see the shows he was covering for the Philadelphia Bulletin. After starting out as a proofreader for a local paper in her native Pennsylvania and for Woman's Day magazine, she relocated in the 1960s to New York's music-rich East Village to live with John Hall. After Johanna reviewed Janis Joplin's 1969 album I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! for the Village Voice, she became friends with the late Big Brother and the Holding Company vocalist, eventually contributing the title track (a co-write with John Hall, a future US Congressman) to Joplin's posthumously released 1971 album, Pearl.
"'Miracle in Bethlehem' began as a commission from St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in Woodstock in 2000, when [writer] Gail Godwin and [composer] Robert Starer initiated the Woodstock Cycle, which enlists local composers to create musical settings based on Bible stories and characters," Hall explains. "Barbara approached me then to write a libretto. She wanted to create a setting based on the Magnificat [hymn] and the story of the Annunciation, and we collaborated on a short piece, 'Mary in the Garden.' We then extended the story to the birth of Jesus for a production in 2003. It was well received, but we perceived that there was more that needed to be done, in terms of rewriting and expanding. It's been fun to invent some characters and to reimagine others."
Ars Choralis, conducted by Barbara Pickhardt, will perform the music of "Miracle in Bethlehem" on December 7 at 7pm and December 8 at 4pm at Overlook Methodist Church in Woodstock. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.