james (book of ruth): by Steven Serpa

An oratorio of hope for World AIDS Day



The challenges of living with HIV/AIDS have changed since the fateful 80s and 90s when significant populations of the gay community were eradicated and deeply affected by the deadliness of the disease. Today the Center for Disease Control says that the epidemic has been largely minimized in most of the USA, due mostly to medicines that suppress the virus from reproducing itself in the body–even preventatively. While death is not on the doorstep of someone who contracts HIV today, the stigma of the virus may have profound impacts on their private and public lives, causing many who have HIV/AIDS to live closeted or shame-filled lives, especially in close relationships. To that end, the Co-Artistic Directors of Chorosynthesis Singers (Wendy Moy and Jeremiah Selvey) set out to commission a dramatic work that highlights that stigma in comparison with the death-sentence of the 80’s and 90’s in narrative form. 

Jeremiah and Wendy were deeply moved by the exquisite counterpoint and harmonic sound-world of Steven Serpa’s Like Darling: A Triptych for A Cappella Voices (premiered by Chorosynthesis Singers in 2016), which Steven composed as a response to terrorism around the globe. When they approached Steven about composing a dramatic work about HIV/AIDS, he sought out librettist Zac Kline. Zac’s monologue tribute to the Orlando shooting at Pulse Nightclub, had gone viral, and Steven felt that Zac’s voice would be perfect in the creation of the libretto. The result of that partnership is james (book of ruth).


James’s upbringing was religiously conservative, and he had to learn to live with the stigma associated with being gay. Because of the support of his partner and the new community he found, he was able to get through the pain and suffering his family and religious community caused by their stigma. Little did he understand the depth of pain caused by his mother’s rejection–her inability to hold him because he was “positive.” When she insists on repentance so she can hold him and when his partner dies of AIDS, he encounters another mother figure (Ruth) and begins looking for a new outlook on life. The transformation of James through his partner’s love and through the wisdom and commitment of Ruth will inspire us all.

The hope James experiences in the face of incredible loss and stigma is universally applicable, and in this way, we continue “Empowering Silenced Voices.” We hope–by the powerful music, libretto, and excellent performance–to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS and to bring hope to all living in any sort of psychological pain.

james (book of ruth)
a dramatic oratorio for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone with chorus of mixed voices and chamber ensemble

by Steven Serpa
libretto by Zac Kline

performed by
Chorosynthesis Singers
Wendy Moy and Jeremiah Selvey, Co-Artistic Directors/Co-Conductors
Stephen Lancaster, Baritone (James)

Santa Monica College
December 2018 (World AIDS Day)
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, Santa Monica, California
Other Artists-in-Residence Activities in the SMC Music Department: Lectures, Masterclasses, Workshops

Connecticut College?
Spring 2019
Evans Hall, New London, Connecticut
Other Artists-in-Residence Activities in the SMC Music Department: Lectures, Masterclasses, Workshops



james (book of ruth) is a new choral oratorio written by composer Steven Serpa and librettist Zac Kline. It presents the story of James, an HIV+ man, and the loss he suffers because of the virus. James loses the man he loves to the physical ravages of HIV/AIDS, while he loses his family and community through fear and stigma. Chorosynthesis Singers is producing this new work in its ongoing mission to give voice to people silenced in their communities. Many HIV+ men and women live with this virus as a dark, shameful secret; afraid it will be found out and will jeopardize their careers and the relationships they have built with loved ones and their communities. This production will engage with local communities and foster empathy and acceptance of those suffering the emotional toll of HIV stigma and further educate the public to curb that stigma.

Fear of the AIDS virus and the stigma surrounding it are powerful and long lasting. This line is a prime example: Any homosexual or Haitian has become an object of dread. It is from the 1983 New York magazine cover-story “AIDS Anxiety” and is an artifact from the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The stigma encapsulated in it has recently resurfaced. Major news sources reported that during immigration policy meetings, President Trump called for a ban on immigration from Haiti and other “shithole countries” because immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS.” Trump’s statement is aimed at immigrant. The LGBT community has been the focus of much of Vice President Pence’s public policy. He has called for government to redirect federally-granted HIV funding away from education and prevention initiatives and toward institutions that can help homosexuals “change their sexual behavior,” essentially curbing the behavior that leads to HIV/AIDS. These statements and policies are current expressions of long-held prejudices against particular segments of the population, unfounded fears that they are a severe health threat to the American people because they carry the AIDS virus.

The history of the virus since the 1980s is familiar. Medical research into HIV and AIDS has led to life-saving medications and preventative measures, and a positive diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was. Public statements and policies like those from Trump and Pence are part of a cycle. They are fueled by fear of HIV+ individuals, and they help to fuel continued fear and prejudice. Private expressions of stigma against homosexuals and other sufferers of the disease that have been long held in some communities are revealed through them. This stigma profoundly affects every aspect of an HIV+ person’s life: many live with daily fear and shame, hiding their illness from strangers and loved-ones alike, and suffer in solitude. Still others choose to not know their HIV status out of fear of rejection from society. With this current backdrop, Chorosynthesis Singers and their co-artistic directors Wendy Moy and Jeremiah Selvey hope to impact the lives of men and women with HIV/AIDS by focusing the public discourse on the issue of HIV stigma in American society and the adversity that positive individuals live through as a result. Chorosynthesis has commissioned the creation of james (book of ruth), a dramatic choral oratorio, as the vehicle for this dialogue.

Composer Steven Serpa and playwright Zac Kline have been enlisted as collaborators to bring about this vision. The work is a 65-70 minute piece for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone soloists, chorus of mixed voices, and a chamber ensemble comprised of a string trio, piano and percussion. The libretto is complete and the score will be finished by July 2018. james (book of ruth) will have its premiere performances to commemorate World AIDS Day, the weekend of December 1st, 2018, in Los Angeles, with performances in Seattle later that month. The oratorio is presented in seven scenes with a prologue and epilogue. It will be performed semi-staged with no intermission. Audiences will journey with James as he comes to terms with his HIV+ diagnosis and struggles with how the stigma of the virus will affect his future: his future with his partner, with his family, and with his community.

james (book of ruth) is a story set in the present. James, the baritone soloist, has been diagnosed HIV+ and is struggling emotionally. His mother, the soprano soloist, made a promise to him as a child that she would always love him and be there for him, but their relationship has deteriorated since James came out as homosexual and moved away from home. He finds a supportive community in his new city and finds love. The virus infects James’ partner and the illness starts to take its toll on both of them physically and emotionally. With growing desperation for emotional support, James turns to his mother. She and his childhood community rise up in response, remind James that he chose homosexuality, and that he has brought God’s judgment in the form of HIV on himself and his partner. His mother gives him one final chance to leave his sinful life and dying partner behind for the support she can provide. This ultimatum is too much. James won’t desert the man he loves, and his mother turns her back on him. James’ partner soon succumbs to the affect of the AIDS virus and dies. James is left alone with the remnants of a community ravaged by the virus and with the desertion of his family. A woman appears; Ruth, the mezzo-soprano soloist. She helps bury James’ partner, and she helps unburden James’ heavy heart, and finally she helps guide him toward rebuilding his life in the aftermath of death and stigma. While james (book of ruth) is a contemporary story, there are shadows and glimmers cast on the work from the early years of the AIDS crisis. The decimation of James’ gay community is one of those shadows. The glimmer is found in the character Ruth. She is a reference to Ruth Coker Burks, an Arkansas woman who, from 1983-1995, cared for and buried nearly one hundred men who were abandoned by their families because they were gay. She held these men and witnessed their last breathes as the AIDS virus ran its course on their immune systems. She buried them one by one over the years in her family cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Chorosynthesis Singers is a professional, 12-voice choir whose mission is the creation and performance of music that connects music with community, specifically through the lens of social consciousness. The ensemble performs in world-class venues, partners with other organizations as artists-in-residence and concert series guests, and annually provides new music reading sessions. Based on their inaugural performance, they were awarded 2nd place for The American Prize 2016 in the Ensemble: Professional Choruses Division. Chorosynthesis Singers is co-directed by artist-educators Wendy Moy and Jeremiah Selvey, who took 3rd and 1st places respectively for The American Prize 2016 in the Conducting: Professional Choruses Division. Empowering Silenced Voices, an album of new, socially-conscious choral music will soon be released on the Centaur Records label.

Steven Serpa is a composer in the early stages of his career. Since its premiere in 2011, his one-act opera Thyrsis & Amaranth has been performed over a dozen times by opera companies around the United States and Canada. It has been described by critics as “a powerfully emotional contemporary opera” and “truly beautiful... a magnificent little story jammed full of thought and feeling and meaning.” The recent premiere of his work An Invocation by the Austin Symphony Orchestra was described as “a stunner” and an “absolutely persuasive [work]” by critics in the Austin American-Statesman. Steven has made it his mission as a composer to respond to the times he lives in and the current state of our world. His recent cantata And Loving for All provided just that in 2017, making a commentary on the marriage equality debate that uses the writings of Civil Rights pioneer Mildred Loving as its foundation. Jeremiah and Wendy were moved by the exquisite counterpoint and harmonic sound-world of Steven’s Like a Darling: A Triptych for a cappella voices written in response to terrorism around the globe. Chorosynthesis Singers performed the work’s world premiere in 2016 and have since included it on their debut CD Empowering Silenced Voices. Knowing Steven’s experience writing music drama and the socially-conscious mission of some of his works, Jeremiah and Wendy approached Steven about composing a dramatic work about HIV/AIDS. Steven in turn sought out playwright Zac Kline to write the libretto.

Zac Kline wrote a deep and moving monologue these wings were meant to fly as tribute to the shooting massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. He and his production partners at Missing Bolts and NoPassport Theatre Alliance created After Orlando, an international theater action response to the 2016 tragedy. They have curated a collection of monologues and responses from more than 70 writers and have brought After Orlando to dozens of cities across the United States and abroad including the UK and Peru. Steven felt that Zac’s theatrical voice and dedication to social change would be perfect for the creation of this libretto. The result of this partnership is james (book of ruth).

Project Media


A draft of the full score will be completed by July 2018. Below is a PDF of the current libretto (through page 24), followed by a draft of piano-vocal score of the Prologue and first movement of the work (beginning on page 25).

Dr. Stephen Lancaster, who will sing the lead baritone role, SMC Music, & co-artistic directors, Dr. Wendy Moy and Dr. Jeremiah Selvey, will work collaboratively in the composition process.

Excerpted samples from Chorosynthesis Singers’ soon to be released double CD featuring 16 PREMIERES of socially conscious works. For notes about specific pieces, we encourage you to visit our program notes online. 

James (book of ruth) extends “Empowering Silenced Voices” into yet another season. We add HIV/AIDS to the list that already includes the topics of colonialism, displacement, war, terrorism, human rights, women’s rights, advocacy for children, our connection to the earth, and integration with technology.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye marks out the physical and emotional effects of terrorism with people— first graders, mothers, friends; with everyday objects— kettles, apples, glasses of water; with locations— Texas, Turkey, Syria. She captures with these everyday words just how alarmingly common, even mundane, news of terrorism has become to us. Her text and my musical setting are understated and all lead toward one word that offers hope in a world so torn apart, “together.”-Steven Serpa
Commissioned by Chorosynthesis for “Empowering Silenced Voices.”

Proposed BudgetS