John Shoptaw was raised in the Missouri Bootheel, the state's poverty belt, where his first jobs included picking cotton and stacking lumber in the local mill. He began college at Southeast Missouri State Teachers' College, and graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, with a degree in physics. He returned as a special student, and received undergraduate degrees in English and Comparative Literature. Upon graduating, he won the University award in Greek and Latin language. Shoptaw attended graduate school at Harvard University, winning there a Merit and a Whiting Fellowship. He received his PhD from Harvard in English and American Literature. His dissertation, on the poetry of John Ashbery, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry, was rewritten and published by Harvard University Press. After graduating from Harvard, he taught in the English Department at Princeton University, where he received a Mellon Preceptorship, and at Yale University, before he transferred with his wife (a professor in Classics at Yale) and daughter to the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley, where he now teaches American poetry and poetry writing. Since his study on Ashbery, he has published articles in the lyric theory (e.g., "Lyric Cryptography," Poetics Today) and on American poetry (e.g., "Listening to Dickinson," Representations).

Since joining the UC Berkeley English Department, Shoptaw has shifted his primary focus to creative writing. He completed the libretto for Our American Cousin, a full-length opera composed by Eric Sawyer. He is currently finishing his first book of poems, Navigator, a sequence dwelling on the Mississippi River basin, where Shoptaw was born and raised. Some of these poems have been published in journals such as The Chicago Review and New American Writing. He also recently collaborated with Sawyer on a setting of "Itasca," a poem from Navigator recounting the discovery of the source of the Mississippi River, for four choreographed singers and electronics. It premiered at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology.


Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College | March 31, 2007

News and Press

[CD Review] Fanfare reviews Eric Sawyer: Our American Cousin

This is a wonderful surprise. When the Editor proposed the disc, from the title I suspected it would be about the Lincoln assassination, as Our American Cousin was the name of the play performed that evening in Ford’s Theater. But I did not know the composer, Eric Sawyer (b. 1962), nor his librettist John Shoptaw, and knew nothing of this opera, which is truly “hot off the press,” having been premiered in Boston just last year.

Fanfare Full review
[Concert Review] Big themes, big performances boost "Our American Cousin"

NORTHAMPTON - It is rare to encounter an opera premiere outside the big cities or big festivals but Amherst composer Eric Sawyer and Berkeley poet John Shoptaw have done the almost-impossible. They raised $100,000 (from foundations and generous individuals), enlisted the talent (some of it from Opera Boston), and produced their new opera, Our American Cousin, on Friday at the Academy of Music in this town. This was its first fully staged performance. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project was in the pit, led by Gil Rose.

The Boston Globe Full review
[Concert Review] "Cousin" opera recounts Lincoln assassination

NORTHAMPTON - In opera, anything can happen as long as you sing about it.

In Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera Our American Cousin, the events immediately surrounding President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were examined operatically through the eyes of the actors in the play the president came to Ford’s Theater to attend that fateful evening.

The opera premiered Friday evening at the Academy of Music Theater.

The Republican Full review
[Concert Review] Recalling that fateful night at Ford's Theatre

It sounds like the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, history category: What was playing at Ford’s Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? The answer, for those not up on their Civil War-era minutiae, is Our American Cousin, a rather slight comedy of manners by British writer Tom Taylor.

The Boston Globe Full review
[News Coverage] Singing the Union in peril: Opera goes behind the scenes at Ford's Theater

Backstage at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on the night of April 14, 1865, Ned Emerson is rehearsing his sneeze.

Fellow actor Harry Hawk receives bad news. The man he paid to perform his service in the Civil War, ended just five days earlier, has died in combat.

Actor John Wilkes Booth, a familiar face, though not in the cast that evening, approaches Jack Mathews with a sealed letter and a request to deliver it to John Coyle, editor of the National Intelligencer, the following day.

Amherst Bulletin Full review
[News Coverage] American tragedy receives a lyrical touch

President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the surrounding events are seen through the prism of musical drama in the world premiere of Our American Cousin, a new opera by Amherst College composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw.

The Republican Full review
[News Coverage] A night at Ford's Theater: Opera revives Lincoln's assassination

When Laura Keene took the stage of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. to greet the audience on April 14, 1865, she had every good reason to anticipate a fine evening ahead.

With her theater company, she was poised to present a sure crowd-pleaser, Broadway’s first smash hit. The assemblage included distinguished guests President Lincoln and the First Lady. And five days earlier, the surrender of Confederate General Lee to U.S. Grant at Appomattox had ended the long nightmare of the Civil War that had split the nation in two.

Amherst Bulletin Full review