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October 5, 2023

US tragedy to resonate with Adelaide audiences

A tragic gay hate crime that led to the death of a young man in Wyoming in the 90s has parallels to the murder of George Duncan in Adelaide according to the musical director of an upcoming performance of oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard.

considering matthew shepard musical director jesse budel
  • Adelaide-based musical director Jesse Budel
  • -
  • Words by David Simmons

A haunting choral performance peppered with spoken word recitations of Matthew Shepard’s own diary open a heart-wrenching oratorio named after the gay hate crime victim.

University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was just 21 when he was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in 1998. The young man would pass away in hospital six days after the event from severe head injuries received during the attack.


Considering Matthew Shepard
October 12, 13, 14
Tickets here

It was such a violent and gruesome death that the event received national attention from the press, but it would take 11 more years for anyone in power in the United States to act with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed by the Obama administration in 2009 to amend existing legislation to cover hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation.

Though his murder at the hands of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson – who were both imprisoned – was senseless, Shepard’s legacy inspired action to make sure these types of crimes were justly prosecuted.

It also inspired Grammy-nominated composer Craig Hella Johnson to write the oratorio that tells Shepard’s story through his eyes and the eyes of those around him. Ultimately, it asks audiences to reflect on his life and the less tangible effects of the murder both good and bad.

Adelaide-based musical director Jesse Budel is bringing Considering Matthew Shepard to the University of Adelaide’s Elder Hall this month and he hopes audiences will be able to draw a comparison to South Australia’s own tragic gay hate crime – the unsolved murder of Dr George Duncan who drowned in 1972 after being thrown into the River Torrens by what was believed to be a group of police officers.

It will be Budel’s second time presenting the oratorio to be performed by singers from Adelaide’s finest choirs including soloists Mark Oates and Jennifer Trijo alongside a chamber orchestra. Budel first staged the piece in 2019 – the Australian premier – and it is being re-mounted to mark the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s death.

“This is 25 years since Matthew’s passing, and given the response that we had last time – three standing ovations after each performance – we got the sense that this is a story that deserves to be told again to a wider audience,” Budel told CityMag.

“Matthew’s story connects with many other shared experiences in our community, including Dr Georges Duncan’s 1972 drowning, the hate crimes in Sydney this past half century, and more recently the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shootings.”

There’s another connection to the Adelaide equivalent of Shepard’s murder that audiences might miss; Oates – who performs solo as the titular character – also took on the role of George Duncan in the premier of Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan at the Adelaide Festival last year.

“I think what makes Considering Matthew Shepard distinct from Watershed is that Watershed is about an unresolved case – the piece and much like the actual real-life circumstances leave with an open question of justice having not been served,” Budel said.

“Whereas in Considering Matthew Shepard, both Allen and Russell were convicted with two life sentences without possibility or parole.

“Craig Hella Johnson, the composer, offers this epilogue that is about how we’ve considered Matthew’s story now so let’s continue on with full appreciation of the human experience, particularly love, compassion and life-affirming joy.”

Budel admits that the subject matter can be challenging – even for himself and the performers – and that the sheer length of the oratorio (nearly two hours) can be physically demanding. However, audiences should feel that time slide by.

“Audiences said last time that it did not feel like two hours because you’re so deeply invested in the piece,” Budel said.

Ultimately, he wants crowds to leave Elder Hall thinking about how pivotal progressive moments in Australia – such as the marriage equality plebiscite – were not “silver bullets” for the LGBTQI’s community toward equality.

“Although we have marriage equality and adoption rights in Australia, that is not a silver bullet to end ongoing discrimination and hate,” he said.

“By acknowledging that these things have happened, and continue to happen, only through considering it and considering the stories and circumstances are we able to then try and find a way forward with it.”

Considering Matthew Shepard will be performed at Elder Hall on 12, 13 and 14 October. Tickets are available here.

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