Oct. 6, 2023

To Feel the Truth

A conversation with Intelligence librettist Gene Scheer
Gene Scheer, right, in Houston for rehearsals of Intelligence. Photo credit: Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

More than 150 years after the Civil War, Gene Scheer set about writing the libretto for Intelligence, HGO’s new opera about two brave women in Confederate Virginia who worked together to spy for the Union: Mary Jane Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew.  

As part of his process, Gene traveled to Richmond, Virginia. He visited the White House of the Confederacy and the prominent white Episcopal Church, St. John’s, where Mary Jane was baptized. He looked out from the spot where the Van Lew Mansion once stood, gazing toward the bottom of the hill, where enslaved people like Mary Jane were once bought and sold.  

He read all the scholarship he could find. He spoke with experts. He went back and forth with his longtime creative collaborator, composer Jake Heggie, ping-ponging music and words to one another. He met with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, co-creator and director/choreographer for the opera, at their favorite spot in New York’s West Village, to discuss the story, the ways dance could help tell it, and—beyond the narrative—make them feel the story. Finally, he wrote the libretto. The team workshopped it. He went back again. 

And then, in the way that the truth so often does, events long buried—in this case, for more than 150 years—revealed themselves. “After I wrote the libretto,” Gene told me, “a letter was unearthed.”  

The letter, which Mary Jane sent to Elizabeth from New York in 1870, had turned up at an auction house. Mary Jane had written her fellow spy to turn down an invitation to travel back to Richmond. Verifying the letter had been a laborious endeavor. Separating myth from fact is always a challenge for historians, and in this case, the truth had been buried on purpose—Elizabeth literally kept her diary underground, so that only portions have survived. Mary Jane used multiple names and obfuscated the details of her extraordinary story throughout her lifetime, and it doesn’t take historical documentation to understand why. She must have been scared to death.  

The emergence of the letter, a few scant years ago, revealed that, counter to what scholars had previously thought, the two women did, in fact, speak after the war. And while its discovery didn’t change the libretto for Intelligence, it did serve as a reminder that the truth has a power all its own, and that history is all around us, still coming to light.  


That letter, which sold at auction, added a new layer to what is known about the complex relationship between the women at the center of
Intelligence, a relationship that has fascinated Gene and his co-creators from the start.  

While current scholarship provides access to a set of remarkable facts about these two spies from history, there are huge gaps in the record. We know that Mary Jane was enslaved to Elizabeth’s family, and that she was singled out for special treatment—but why? What was the nature of the women’s relationship? And what did it feel like to risk their lives for the sake of a cause? These are questions Gene asked himself again and again. To answer them, he knew, the art form would have to come in. 

“What is truth?” he mused during our conversation. “In opera, whether it’s a fictitious story or a nonfiction story, we are tasked with what I call ‘emotional archeology.’ That’s what music and the human voice can do so expressively, to get that feeling. And what Jawole’s dance, and her incredible dancers, are accomplishing is, again, what does it feel like? What are the characters’ thoughts? 

As he and his co-creators traveled to the emotional heart of the story, a character emerged, one that would break open the riddle of the women spies’ relationship. She was not someone Gene had read about, or come across in his travels, or learned about in conversations with historians. In fact, there was no record of her anywhere. Yet she was quite real. That character is Mary Jane’s mother. In Intelligence, she is called Lucinda, and she is the embodiment of truths that cannot be buried.  

“She was written out of the record,” Gene said. “When you’re Black and you’re a woman and you’re enslaved—considered property—there is nothing. She’s representing all of the people who have been erased.”  

There were many conversations about the opera and its story during the workshop process. Photo credit: David Starry for CU New Opera Workshop

Is this a story for Gene to tell? It’s something he has struggled with, and that members of the cast and creative team have discussed a lot. He’s grateful for the guidance he’s received, especially from Jawole. He’s rewritten portions of the libretto more than once. Ultimately, he views the story
Intelligence tells as an American one. 

“Honestly, Khori,” he said, “Elizabeth Van Lew worked on behalf of the Union and showed incredible bravery. Yet she wasn’t able to understand, in the story that we tell, the extent of her own racism. And to me, that’s one of the parts of this story that ties it to what’s happening in America right now.”  

It’s not easy, Gene said, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. “That was part of the challenge of this, but also part of the excitement, to try to feel what this felt like for other people.” He knows the libretto, the choreography, and the score can only get there together. And he believes, with his whole heart, that what he, Jawole, and Jake have created possesses the power to push society forward.   

“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “There are so many unmarked tributaries flowing into the river of America. And the power of America is based on all of them feeding into the historical record, or the river, that’s flowing forward. And there’s no part of the American story in which the tributaries are more unmarked than the story of what happened to enslaved people, and particularly Black women, in American history.  

“So for people to understand where we are now, they have to understand where we came from. We have to understand not only that enslaved people built America, but that they fought for America, and without the contribution of African Americans in this, we would not have the country that we have now.  

“Even now, there’s all these efforts to expunge the record, to not explore the record, of the contributions of African Americans to the nation’s story. And I think that if you want to move forward, you have to know where you come from. You have to know the truth of it.” āˆŽ 

about the author
Khori Dastoor
General Director and CEO