Stories as Song: A Literary Opera from Andrea Edith Moore

With her new album Family Secrets: Kith & Kin, a North Carolina musician turns writings from local authors into a song cycle.
by David Menconi

As an album, Family Secrets: Kith & Kin is unique – and uniquely North Carolina. It’s deeply rooted in the local arts community, a work that is equal parts opera, chamber-music piece, and literary song cycle — with banjo, no less. And it boasts some big names among the credits, though they’re names not normally associated with music: Daniel Wallace, Lee Smith, Frances Mayes, Jeffery Beam, Michael Malone, Randall Kenan, and Allan Gurganus.

The album is the brainchild of opera singer Andrea Edith Moore. A soprano vocalist, Moore has sung on stages all over the western hemisphere, from the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado to the Hamburger Kammeroper in Germany. For all those travels, however, the Chapel Hill native didn’t make her first album until coming home to North Carolina.

“Being a classical singer, it’s not a straight shot to The Met,” Moore says by phone from her home in Hillsborough, over barking from the family dog Frank “Chairman of the Bark” Sinatra in the background. “Growing up, I always loved musical theater and Broadway. At age 10, I asked my parents if they’d get me a Broadway agent and move to New York with me. Well, that didn’t happen.”

Pursuit of her singing ambitions took Moore to the North Carolina School of the Arts for the last two years of high school, followed by studies and degrees at Yale University and Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. Eventually, she made her way back to the Triangle, where she teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and sings locally with North Carolina Opera.

A bit more than a decade ago, she initiated the process of what eventually became Family Secrets.

Moore envisioned a song cycle based on writings from the surrounding literary community. In their empty-nest phase, her parents had moved to Hillsborough, and Moore settled there when she returned from school. Some of the area’s leading literary lights became friends, collaborators, and clients: Moore gave Big Fish author Wallace voice lessons, and she served as Smith’s consultant for her 2013 novel Guests on Earth, advising her on musical verisimilitude.

So Moore enlisted Wallace, Smith, and other local writers to write stories to inspire her songs. Each was given the prompt of “family secrets” and an assigned location (including a cemetery, pantry, porch, and “top of stairs”) as the jumping-off point for their words.

Then, text in hand, Moore turned to composer Daniel Thomas Davis, a fellow North Carolinian she’d known since their days together at Peabody, to set it all to music. The songs are sung by Moore herself, accompanied by a wide-ranging ensemble versed in folk and classical music, including Raleigh banjo ace Hank Smith. The album also includes narration from storytelling actress Jane Holding.

“There’s a dramatic arc to it, from prologue to the end,” Moore says. “One thing I like is something Daniel remarks upon in the liner notes: As he was working through the texts, he realized that all these authors know one another — thus the people inhabiting their writings must all know one another, too. Those interconnections create this village.”

Wallace — whose contribution Pantry is about a mysterious hidden object — says that dynamic makes perfect sense.

“I think it’s absolutely true, that these pieces all feel like a kind of conversation between the works,” Wallace says. “I think the way it turned out is outstanding, a monumental and ambitious project, beautiful and impressive. Andrea was the heart and soul behind it and she really made it happen.”

The apex comes about halfway through, on Chinaberry Tree. Written by the late Randall Kenan, who passed last year, it’s a true-life story about the brutal murder of a beloved aunt by his uncle. The album is dedicated to Kenan’s memory.

“He passed away before the album came out, but he was able to hear it performed live and was extraordinarily moved by the realization of his story in the music,” Moore says. “Randall had never put that one pen-to-paper in a book, but he felt that setting it to music was the right place for it to live. It was an honor and a big responsibility, to be given that story and tell it with care.”

Family Secrets has been performed live a number of times in recent years, at UNC and in an operatic staged version with North Carolina Opera. They recorded the album in September 2019 at Manifold Recording in Pittsboro, and the post- recording tweaks were going on just as the pandemic shutdown began in March 2020. Moore had planned for additional performances to accompany the album’s release, but that will have to wait for the pandemic to subside. Whenever that happens, chances are that its themes will still be timely.

“Given what we’re still on the brink of as a society and a nation, it feels like the exact right time for that Allan Gurganus quote from the epilogue,” Moore says. “Can’t we each be saved from our worst selves? It’s a really important question to ask ourselves, whether it’s about politics, our health, or just being good neighbors and a civil person. Can’t we just be? Caring about each other — it would be nice to see more of that.”