It's hard to believe that he would have been 40 this December. As a gay expat who long ago evacuated the reddening Rocky Mountain West for the warming blue shores of Southern California, the 1998 murder of a young, gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming, caught my attention.
Lured from a local bar, he was kidnapped, robbed, savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left "begging for his life" on a freezing October night under a blanket of Wyoming stars. When he passed away, five days later, the world was watching.
"His name was Matthew Wayne Shepard," inscribed Grammy-winning conductor Craig Hella Johnson into the libretto of Considering Matthew Shepard, his first concert-length work for Conspirare, the radiant Austin professional choir that Johnson, as artistic director, founded in 1991.
Considering Matthew Shepard is a sweeping, Western "fusion" oratorioclassical, contemporary and cowboy. In orthodox terms, an oratorio is a religious story, a grand musical composition for orchestra, choir and soloists.
For my work as curator of Out West, a national LGBT museum program series, I was invited to attend a February preview event of Considering Matthew Shepard in Beverly Hills, a long way from where I am originally from: 1950s rural Cody, Wyoming.
That evening, Craig performed his song, "Ordinary Boy," with words from Matt's personal journal. When Matt's character jubilantly sang, "I love Wyoming!," it broke me.
For nearly two decades I have felt guilty for loving Wyoming because of the despicable way Matthew Shepard was murdered. I stayed away from the rural West because of it. And suddenly, in Matt's own words, I learned that he loved Wyoming, too. I am forever indebted to Considering Matthew Shepard for reintroducing me to "ordinary" Matt.
Considering Matthew Shepard had its world premiere in Austin on Feb. 20, 2016. I was privileged to attend. When Craig Hella Johnson took the stage, the audience fell silent and sat absolutely motionless for the next hundred minutes. After sustained rounds of thundering applause, with critical raves still raining down; I concur with the written remarks of a fellow audience member out there in the dark: "We knew we were experiencing something life-changingsomething beyond beautiful ... something to be remembered the rest of our lives."
Considering Matthew Shepard joins the ranks of many significant emotional, scholarly and artistic responses to Matthew Shepard's legacy; including books, poetry, paintings, stories, songs, plays, and films. The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project, has been seen by 30 million people.
Jason Marsden, executive director of The Matthew Shepard Foundation, calls Considering Matthew Shepard "by far the most intricate, beautiful and unyielding artistic response to this notorious anti-gay hate crime."
I visited Jason at his offices in Denver about a week after the June 12 massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that's been called "the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history." I guessed he had been tasked to comment. Ordinarily affable and measured, Jason did not mask his distress. "I didn't know where to begin," he told me, but Jason found the words.
Last October, I was privileged to meet with Dennis and Judy Shepard in Casper to preview their personal collection of public condolence letters in the wake of Matt's passing. They were welcoming and earnest. Only now do I realize how much we collectively ask of the Shepard family and how much it has given back to our community in the name of its eldest son.
Thanks to Out West, I visit Wyoming often. Next trip, I look forward to bringing along my CD of Considering Matthew Shepard. In addition to "Ordinary Boy," another favorite is "The Innocence," movingly performed by Matt Alber, which, for me, invokes the light and darkness of Stonewall, Laramie and Orlando, where we laughed before we cried.
I hope Wyoming embraces Considering Matthew Shepard as its official "state oratorio."
Put it to a vote only after listening to the opening track of the joyous, expansive "Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass," from Wyoming's own cowboy poet, Sue Wallis, with contributions from eastern Wyoming poet John Nesbitt.
Until I make it home, I'll crank up Considering Matthew Shepard while navigating the clamoring streets of Hollywood and dream of Matt's better Wyoming.
About Considering Matthew Shepard
On Friday, Sept. 9, Harmonia Mundi will release the CD recording of Considering Matthew Shepard. An excerpt can be streamed at open.spotify.com/track/5Mh2keE6C1JEtcHnvhUSr3 .
About Gregory Hinton
Gregory Hinton is an author, filmmaker and creator of Out West, an innovative museum program series devoted to illuminating LGBT history and culture in the American West. In 2015, Hinton co-founded Out West in the Rockies, a dedicated LGBT western archive at the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center in Laramie. Recently profiled in the Los Angeles Times, Hinton has also been interviewed by the New York Times, multiple NPR affiliates, and many metro and community newspapers throughout the West.