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Music by: Shawn Okpebholo

Libretto by: Marcus Amaker

Duration: 20 mins

Co-commisioned by: UrbanArias, The Minnesota Opera, Opera Colorado, Wolf Trap Opera, and Opera Birmingham, 2022

Premiere: Digital, November 11, 2021


UNknown is a dramatic song cycle commissioned by UrbanArias and a coalition of national partners to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery




2 Baritones


Piano, alto saxophone, violin (2), cello, bass, and percussion

Project Statement

There’s a heavy irony to the memorial. In one sense, it banishes distraction and demands that we focus our scattered attentions on the sacrifices made across generations of American service members. At the same time, the potency and power of the Tomb itself as a symbol accommodates an understanding of war that rests in the abstract, remains distant, proceeds unknown. The monolithic presence of the symbol can actually serve to obscure the multiplicity of experiences it stands for. Okpebholo and Amaker rise to the challenge of commemorating the Tomb by adopting a compositional approach that echoes “Two Black Churches,” not just in the elegant quotation of other pieces (“Taps” and “America the Beautiful” cast passing shadows in “Unknown”) but also in the balance the songs strike between the catastrophe of war and the intimacy of loss.

Amaker’s poetry filters its patriotism through a frank, personal lens — “If death has a sound,” a soldier sings, “then I am now its echo” — and also leaves vast space for Okpebholo’s music to unfurl and say what’s left unsaid.




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