Andrea Edith Moore

World-class Soprano Andrea Edith Moore.

In a town like Hillsborough, which softly boasts a well-regulated army of storytellers, it’s a wonder there are any secrets left to be told. But they’re there, sometimes tucked into layers of wallpaper or behind a cabinet door that can’t be opened without the pry of a butterknife or flathead screwdriver.

With “Family Secrets: Kith and Kin,” Soprano Andrea Edith Moore and Musician Daniel Thomas Davis have constructed a household of mysteries from the contributions of seven of the towns best-known writers. The cd takes you on a tour of the house and grounds, with each piece flipping on the light to another room, revealing its own secret. It’s not that the house is haunted, but the poems and short prose are haunting and provocative, poking at the listener to consider his or her own family secrets. 

“This idea has been in my heart for almost a decade from the beginnings, the inception of the idea to where we are now,” said Andrea Moore. “It’s grown and I’ve talked about it a lot. Sometimes when you talk about things more than once, or more than 20 times, you realize something new. This work has evolved a lot. Also, the general idea kind of remained the same, but it turned into something that I never imagined.”

Moore said she’s been singing for as long as she can recall. Her parents enrolled her in formal voice lessons when she around 10-years-old. She still keeps in touch with her original voice teacher, and all the teachers along the way who inspired her. She attended the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem for her junior and senior years of high school, which is when Moore developed her love of opera. She then attended Peabody and then on to Yale University.

Once out of school, Moore lived and performed in New York before going to Germany and singing in Hamburg. Even though she was enjoying what she was doing, Moore became homesick and, in 2010, returned to North Carolina. She visited her parents, who had moved to Hills-borough, and began meeting other artists and storytellers in the town.

“It was an enclave,” she said. “Having been in Hamburg and other worldly cities like, New York, and then coming back, I didn’t expect to find so much creativity here. And it was just right here. The community welcomed me as this singer outside the writers circle.” 

Even though Moore isn’t a writer, she understands the close relationship her performances have with literature. “As a singer, you’re always dealing with words and text and source materials, so you know if you’re doing ‘La Traviata,’ you know it’s ‘La Dame aux Camelias,’ by Dumas. If you’re doing ‘Marriage of Figaro,’ it’s Beaumarchais. You learn about the writers along the way,” she said. 

Moore knew she wanted to work with some of the writers and other creative people she had met in Hillsborough. She met with seven of them and pitched collaborating with her in a way that was different from what they would normally do. All said they were eager to participate, even though Moore didn’t yet know the details of her project. She knew only that it was to involve these writers.

Writings by Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Frances Mayes, Michael Malone, Daniel Wallace, Jeffery Beam, and Randall Kenan appear on the “Family Secrets” cd.

Moore decided the project would work best as a song cycle, which is a set of related songs that form a single entity. It would be done with one composer, and contain writings from the group of storytellers. 

“I started to think about stories and things that could become short vignettes, and I thought about family secrets as being something that exists in everybody’s life,” she said.

Moore also became familiar with the writers’ homes and decided this would be another prompt to unify the pieces of “Family Secrets.” 

“When it came time to think about the composer, it just made sense to choose a composer who loved writing for the voice,” Moore said. “Daniel (Davis) and I went to college together at Peabody. He loves the voice, writes beautifully for the instrument and he’s from North Carolina. There was a eureka moment to connect with him about doing this with me. And he also is really a lover of words, too.”

Being lovers of words and working with so many talented writers was like a dream come true. Having to choose which pieces of writing wouldn’t make the cut was less dreamlike. Poet Jeffery Beam submitted nearly 100 poems. Allan Gurganus offered two stories that were very different. Francis Mayes gave two poems, Lee Smith gave two. 

Randall Kenan, to whom the album is dedicated, missed deadline after deadline in his infamous fashion. (Kenan passed away in late August 2020.)

“Dan and I knew we would wait,” Moore said. “We wanted to see what he would offer. And I even reviewed some old emails and when he finally submitted something he said it took him so long to write this and he hoped that we would have it. It was indeed a true story, ‘Chinaberry Tree.’ It’s the central piece, and it was like a gift. Dan had already started composing some themes. We had culled things down from the other authors and we were well on our way when we got Randall’s piece. But, what a piece it was. It’s sort of the fulcrum — the dramatic pinnacle. It’s really a harrowing tale.”

Some secrets are the ones you don’t want to know or know how to tell. Maybe it’s rolled around in a person’s brain for years before they can bring themselves to speak of it, and when they do, it’s in its rawest form of a story.  

Kenan said he’d never been able to write his secret (Chinaberry Tree), but felt when Moore and Davis’ project came along that it was the right place for such a story. Moore said it had an operatic size to it, and they took great care to honor how devastating and personal that was to Kenan and how vulnerable it is to share something like that. 

“Once we got that piece, I think the whole work, from Dan’s point of view, started to really take shape,” Moore said. “I had to give it to him and just trust him. He (Davis) really is a master at crafting words. One thing he says in the composer’s notes, and has said elsewhere — and I love this — is that he started to realize that the writers all know one another and therefore, all the people in their writings also know each other.”

After they collected writings from each of the authors, Davis and Moore stitched them together and then set about shaping the narrative of the piece — first the music, and then how the text was going to go in some sort of narrative or sensical order. They decided the work should have a narrator as well as a singer. 

“Because prose is longer than poetry, generally, and it takes a lot longer to sing something than it does to say something,” Moore said. “So using the vehicle of the narrator, plus adding another character voice in it, and texture allowed Dan to use the text to its fullest. It allowed us to use more of what everybody gave us. It became “Family Secrets,” and it became this quasi chamber opera. Although there’s not this one clear narrative, it is a portrait of a town. It’s a portrait of these stories and there’s connective tissue.” 

In 2018, “Family Secrets” was staged for the North Carolina Opera. Adding to the local flavor of the performance, projections from photographer Elizabeth Matheson were used. Moore and Davis also borrowed pieces from Steven Burke and Randy Campbell’s collection of small, folk art buildings to be on the set, which expanded the celebration of Hillsborough and all the artists in the town. Moore knew she wanted to record the performance and give it to the world. 

“The plan was actually to tour this piece,” Moore said. “Hopefully that will happen. In 2018, I had the idea to record the work when I did a fellowship with the Eighth Blackbird, which is a Grammy winning ensemble out of Chicago. They had an educational fellowship out in California that I participated in. I met the members of Eighth Blackbird, and also Elaine Martone, who ultimately produced the album, which came out in 2020. Members of Eighth Blackbird also play on the album, too. There are also players from here. Hank Smith is a banjo player who appears on the album, which is really odd for an ensemble like this. Dan came up with that texture to bring in. The instrumentation in general is really different: Piano, violin, cello, oboe, English horn, and then the banjo. That was a twist when I first got the score in 2015. I was like, ‘What? The banjo?’ I think it makes the piece really sound Southern.”

Immersing herself for years in the secrets of others inevitably had Moore considering her own family’s secrets, as well as secrets in general. She thought about what it means to have them and to tell them.

“I think there’s a certain allure to knowing about secrets,” she said. “Secrets captivate us: We all want to know people’s secrets, because they make us feel like we know people better. When Jane Holding (narrator) and I say, at the end of Allan Gurganus’ ‘Gossip,’ ‘don’t repeat this,’ it just cracks me up. What does everybody do with a secret? It may depend on the severity of it, but we want to tell it. I have had so many people tell me ‘Oh so and so’s pregnant, but she’s not telling anybody right now.’ Well, why are you telling me? It’s exciting to know something.”

Though not everyone on “Family Secrets: Kith and Kin” reveals their kernel of knowledge. “We still don’t know what Daniel Wallace’s secret was. He leaves you hanging at the end of ‘Pantry.’” You know what was in that pantry? I still don’t quite know,” she said.

“Family Secrets: Kith and Kin” by Andrea Edith Moore and Daniel Thomas Davis can be purchased at Purple Crow Books at 109 W. King St. in downtown Hillsborough.