West Virginian Uses Opera to Talk Mountaintop Removal Mining, Painkiller Overdoses

Sep 3, 2014

Nate May
Credit Roxy Todd

Composer and Huntington native Nate May recently finished production on an original two-person music-drama, called Dust in the Bottomland.

When he began studying music at the University of Michigan Nate May decided to write an opera about some of the issues facing Appalachians.

His friend and fellow student at the University, Andrew Munn, collaborated with him to create Dust in the Bottomland, which they performed last year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York City. The piece uses only one instrument and one vocalist. May plays piano, and Munn sings bass.

“Some people ask, ’Where’s the Appalachian influence in the music?’ And I say, ‘Well, all of it. It’s me, who’s writing it and I grew up in Appalachia,’” said May.

Dust in the Bottomland is about a young man who grew up in West Virginia but moved away. Since he’s been gone, his parents and sister have been displaced from their home, due to mountaintop removal mining. They still live in West Virginia, though they now live down in the valley.

The main character is returning home after 10 years because his sister has overdosed on pain pills. During his return home, the protagonist also visits the site of his family’s home and sees the changes that mining has done to that landscape.

“I think the story hit home to a lot of people because a lot of people, even not from the area, know people affected by addiction," said May. "The other issue that people were affected by was homecoming. And going away and coming back.”

Album cover for Dust in the Bottomland. Shows Bev's Flower Store in Oceana, West Virginia.
Credit Nate May

Nate May and Andrew Munn are now talking about composing a chamber ensemble version of Dust in the Bottomland, which will include more instruments.

Andrew and Nate, during a break from rehearsing at Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan.
Credit Abigail O'Bryan