“At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor…”
So began the proclamation by which Joshua Norton, on September 17, 1859, became Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. The first of many proclamations, it was published nearly 10 years after Norton landed in San Francisco to make his fortune from the Gold Rush. During his 20-year reign, Norton I abolished Congress and political parties, decreed that a bridge be built between Oakland and San Francisco, enjoyed free passage by rail and ship, printed and used his own money, and corresponded with kings, queens, and presidents. Among the literary works to immortalize Norton I are Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrecker. He even captured the imagination of Hollywood in the 1960s as the subject of an episode of Bonanza. Yet few people remember the one and only Emperor of the United States.
I, Norton is a collection of materials in the form of a kit that can be assembled in a unique way for each performance and performed by any number of people. Although the score includes texts for speakers and singers, a realization of the opera can be completely instrumental. The piece does not require staging, sets, lights, or costumes. It is meant to be performed anywhere, anytime.
The literary elements behind the work are the writings attributed to Norton I, as well as “fraudulent decrees” published in contemporary newspapers to cash in on the Emperor’s notoriety. The words, letters, rhythms, and structure of the texts are prepared in a variety of ways and used as source material by each performer.
In performance, I, Norton takes the shape of an improvised collage that combines conduction (using hand cues), graphic scores, memory-based improvisational structures, and traditionally notated music. The opera is an open-ended project—a perpetual work-in-progress—with additions made for each performance.
The opera takes place during the Emperor’s final moments, as he lay dying on a rain-soaked street. The sound and images in each performance act as a metaphor for his life flashing before his eyes—events overlap and appear in fragments, often repeated and exaggerated. As a result, there is no linear storytelling involved; portions of the Emperor’s life are revealed through each realization of the piece.