MOAB — A canyon near Moab has stirred plenty of controversy over the years because some people consider its name — Negro Bill Canyon — to be offensive and disrespectful to the man it was named for.
Now that man, William Grandstaff, has inspired an opera, or at least part of one. A 10-minute segment of the proposed opera had its world premiere during the Moab Music Festival.
As performed by baritone Jared Lesa, Grandstaff was a proud man, torn between staying in Moab and leaving under pressure from a mob of white settlers.
Grandstaff was probably a child of slaves — possibly an ex-slave himself — who ran cattle near Moab in the 1870s. After just a few years he left, or fled, Moab in an episode that may have had racial overtones. That incident has now been turned into operatic song by composer Gerald Elias.
Elias, a concert violinist and mystery novelist whose stories are set in the world of classical music, first began hiking in Negro Bill Canyon in the 1990s. He became fascinated with the man it was named for — one of the first ranchers to thrive in the Moab area following the Civil War. Elias believes Grandstaff's initial success reveals something about the man's character.
"Resourceful for sure," Elias said, seated on a rock in the canyon. "(He) must have had some dogged determination to do so well while he was here."
His opera picks up Grandstaff's story at a moment of crisis in 1881. A mob of white settlers is coming for Grandstaff. Should he flee, or stand and fight for his land?
"This is my land. I'm not leaving!" Lesa sings in the title role of "William Grandstaff."
The actual facts of 1881 are murky and poorly documented, and whether racism was involved is a matter of conjecture.
Elias believes white settlers were jealous of Grandstaff because his cows occupied one of the few canyons with a flowing stream year-round. "Water as a commodity is as valuable as gold here," Elias said. "This is the only canyon that has a permanently flowing stream."
After an Indian uprising turned deadly, Grandstaff was accused of having sold liquor to the Indians. "The white settlers kind of blamed Grandstaff for inciting the Indians by selling them alcohol," Elias said, "though there's nothing to corroborate that."
In the opera, the Grandstaff character sings, "It's not the flowin' liquor those settlers care about. It's flowing water."
The canyon where Grandstaff kept his cattle is popular with hikers these days. Negro Bill Canyon was originally known by a much ruder version of the name, employing the N-word slur.
"I struggled with how to convey that N-word, using the rhythm of the word in the music," Elias explained. "The word is never said, but the audience will definitely know it."
Instead of putting that word in the mouth of Grandstaff's partner, Frenchie, the composer used two beats of instrumental music as a stand-in. Playing the part of 'Frenchie,' tenor Lucas Goodrich sings, "You know what they call you? – – Bill. – – Bill." The Grandstaff character replies in song, "That’s what they call me now. What they call me in the future is all I care about."
In an interview at the mouth of Negro Bill Canyon, Elias said, "It's my hope that in the future, this canyon will be called William J. Grandstaff Canyon.’ ”
Toward the end of the opera segment, the Grandstaff character sings, "Treat me fair. Treat me fair. This is my land! And here I'll die!"
In the end, though, the real-life Grandstaff did flee.
"I'm guessing it would have taken a lot for him to decide to leave," Elias said. The composer doesn't believe his opera has an unhappy ending, though, because Grandstaff left Moab with a sense of hope for the future and the belief that there is always something to strive for.
Grandstaff lived out his life as a respected citizen of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
The Moab Music Festival ended Monday.