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A Spartan’s Dream of Michigan:
H. Owen Reed’s Folk Opera in Two Acts
In 1955 Michigan State University commissioned MSU professor and composer H. Owen Reed to create a work commemorating the school’s centennial. The result was “Peter Homan’s Dream: A Folk Opera in Two Acts” with libretto by John Jennings.
Though the opera in its entirety is rarely staged now, choristers across Michigan still regularly perform the beautiful aria from Act One, “Michigan Morn”:
There is gold in the eye of the morning, in Michigan where I was born; There is gold in the sky and the lakes and the trees; For a man with a will to believe what he sees; There is gold in the eye of the morn.
In Jennings’ libretto, the requisite (and mostly unconvincing) love story is salvaged not only by Reed’s thoughtful score but by the opera’s quirky historical context: the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. Through participation in the Morrill Act, the state of Michigan received over 250,000 acres of Federal land as an endowment for its newly established State Agricultural College. With this much priceless timberland in play, graft and corruption were not only inevitable, they created a scaffold on which the economic and political future of the college (as well as the state) was built.
By the beginning of Act Two, Peter Homan—a ne'er-do-well in Act One—has been transformed into a cartoonish robber baron and state senator. Homan’s riches, we learn, were derived by swindling his friends, in particular the State College timber agent, Clint Baker. By stealing Baker’s ledgers, Homan was able to purchase 50,000 acres of prime Michigan timberland, intended for public auction.
For a time, crime does seem to pay for Homan as he acquires power and prestige and ever greater wealth. The Act Two, Scene 4, stage directions set the scene:
On the platform is a majestic throne on which Peter is seated. At his right is the elegant table upon which repose gilded models of ships, mills, mine-heads, etc. During the Servants’ Dance several objects are brought on and presented silently to Peter. These objects are more or less duplicates of the gilded models already beside him on the table. He accords the new acquisitions only a passing glance…gestures the servants to place these items on the trophy table beside his other spoils of conquest.
In a scene lampooning the rampant corruption of the era, Homan’s servants—carrying in bags of money—perform a “Dance of Obeisance” when a deputation of state legislators and the Land Office Clerk arrive. Homan knows exactly how to treat his guests:
“Champagne for these gentlemen...! [Give them] ten thousand apiece for train fare and incidental expenses!”
The legislators, rather than being appalled by the blatant graft, congratulate Homan on his “enterprise”:
“The king of timber and copper, we salute you, senator!”
Eventually Homan’s former friends, the loggers who now work for him, turn on him for his betrayal of the popular and honorable Clint Baker. However, Homan appeases them by appealing to their pocketbooks:
“Where would your livelihood go, my friends, where would you sell your skill, if I had allowed the Governor to impound your timberland?…The Governor wants to lock up all your great timber wealth, but I want to set it free. The Governor says to you loggers, ‘Go peddle your skills in the West.’ I say ‘Stay right here and work for Peter Homan for double the pay.”
Fortunately—though the time-worn vehicle of “It Was All A Dream!”—all ends well at the close of Act Two. Peter Homan awakes, like Ebenezer Scrooge, a chastened and reformed man. He apologizes to his long-suffering friends, loyal mother, and faithful girlfriend, he pledges to lead an honorable and honest life, and he and the entire chorus reprise “Michigan Morn”:
There is gold in the eye and the sound and the touch,
And the heart of a Michigan morn.
(The Holland Chorale, Brad Richmond guest conductor)