Temptation of Saint Anthony with Robert Wilson (2003)

“As I began to work with the music, my first songs were musical impressions, building songs based on my readings and our discussions. Then I went back to the language of the text and began to build music based on the language. I was amazed at the way the Flaubert script challenged narrow interpretations of God, the creator, where one finds the highest expression, the role of the body in assisting spiritual experiences; the role of the body in hindering spiritual experiences”
—Bernice Johnson Reagon, composer

From the Program Booklet “Notes on the Music of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Temptation of St Anthony”
Spring 2006, the cast of the Robert Wilson Production, Temptation of Saint Anthony, recorded the full score at the Brooklyn Studios, producer, Toshi Reagon who is also the tour music director of the work which premiered in Duisberg, Germany at the Ruhr Triennale Festival June 2003. The production closed out 2005 with sellout performances at the Paris Opera House Garnier, Nov/Dec 2005. The limited edition two CD release came out in July, 2006, Songtalk Publishing Co.

Production Credits:

  • Co-produced by Ruhrtriennale and Change Performing Arts with CRT Artificio, Ortigia
  • Festival Siracusa Peralada and Santander Festival, Sadler’s Wells London, Aventis Foundation, and Opéra National de Paris.
  • Inspired by the text of Gustave Flaubert
  • Direction, set design, and lighting concept by Robert Wilson
  • Music and libretto by Bernice Johnson Reagon
  • Tour music direction and instrumental arrangements by Toshi Reagon
  • Co-direction by Ann Christin Rommen
  • Collaboration on set design by Stephanie Engeln

The Temptation of St. Anthony, a music-theater piece based on a novel written by Flaubert in 1874, is a collaboration between composer Bernice Johnson Reagon and Robert Wilson, world-renowned theater director. The production debuted in Germany in June, 2003 as part of the RuhrTriennale festival in Duisburg Germany and was subsequently performed in Spain, France and England that summer. Most recently, the musical event was produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival in New York City, October 2004; 2005 Spring tour in Italy, Belgium and Spain; and closing 2005 with sellout performances at the Paris Opera Garnier November/December.

Ms. Reagon, founder of the vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock, has provided ethereal chorales and tambourine-shaking gospel tunes, declamatory spirituals and sultry soul. Her music easily traverses the African diaspora. Hushed harmonies float over a roiling band or a teasing blues guitar; soloists and choir build dynamic call-and-response; there is rasping gospel oratory and tender persuasion.”
—Jon Pareles, New York Times

The music of her early years provides her signature as a composer, the melodies and harmonies come out of the African American musics created within the community during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The new work in this collaboration with Robert Wilson is a clear example of this range. Reagon also brings into her work as a composer fruits from her work of 40 years of research in African American culture and history. Grounding her sound in the older core of African American congregational traditions Reagon is also a child of her contemporary period, growing up during the period of doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and classic gospel; learning blues from the midnight to day radio playing of her brother, and being a participant in the topical song movement as music colleagues with Peter Seeger, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ralph Rinzler, and Ethel Raim expanded her musical world. As a composer, she has embraced it all from the prospective of her Southwest Georgia cultural core.

During the past 20 years Reagon has been a major force in creating film scores that maintain historical and sound integrity. Some of her projects include: the Eyes On The Prize series and the history of the Civil Rights Movement, We Shall Overcome, African in American, Freedom Song, Frederick Douglass and the Lion Who Wrote History, and Wade In The Water: African American Sacred Song Traditions, Africans in America, the History of Slavery in America. With many of her film scores she works with existing musical records, however in her work with Africans in America, four films on the history of slavery in the United States, and Freedom Song, her original non-textual compositions sets her apart as a unique composer drawing from traditions but creating a new language of sound.

Reagon’s St. Anthony celebrates the astonishing power of the human voice to counter despair and injustice. In the exhausting hysteria of these pre-election days, such a musical embrace offers respite, if not theatrical satisfaction. We are bathed in the harmonic bliss of communal song; but the elusive image of a man wandering in the wilderness, seeking a resonant truth, is what haunts us.”
—Charlotte Stoudt, Village Voice