‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ and Its Beautiful Complexities

A large choir is on a stage. In front of them is a harpist, flutist, violinist, chellist, and conductor. A man sits on a red chair on the stage reading.
The Isabel Voices. Photo provided by Dianna Bristol.

Please note this review mentions brutal violence towards the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Resources are available at the bottom of this page.


Considering Matthew Shepard by Craig Hella Johnson, for all its complexity, can simply be described as a masterpiece. Performed by The Isabel Voices, the three-part oratorio is an astounding feat. 

As I’ve sat down to write this review, I’ve been struggling with where to start. I’m fervent about giving this performance the praise it deserves yet the intricacies of an oratorio and the accompanying musical vernacular feel unfamiliar to me. However, the story on which Considering Matthew Shepard is based is one the Kingston Theatre Alliance, and myself, feel passionate towards reviewing.

Matthew Shepard was a young gay student murdered in the fall of 1998. It was a brutal hate crime by two men that angered many but also called many to action, and the result has been exceptional. The Matthew Shepard Foundation was created by his parents and legislation was passed in response to Matthew’s murder and another victim of a grossly violent hate crime, James Byrd Jr.: Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

Considering Matthew Shepard tells the story of Matthew, describing details before, during, and after his death. Purely done so in song, with a few readings throughout the performance, there is an unexplainable drape of emotion that crosses the entire theatre. Wrought with beauty, sorrow, hope, love, kindness, grief, courage, and bravery are melodies that bind an audience to one simultaneous thought of awe. It is incredible. 

Johnson has taken the story of a real person and handled it with such care that the result does not allow anyone to forget how this piece came to be. All members of The Isabel Voices echo this remarkable grace. There was not a single moment where I thought anyone was performing. Each singer and musician lets the music take hold, extending themselves to the emotion the story deserves, and never trying to sway it elsewhere. This lack of attempting to create one’s own spotlight only emphasizes the togetherness the show encapsulates. 

This performance on February 16th, 2024 at the Isabel Bader Centre was very fortunate to have Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard, speak through a Zoom call before the concert began. He took his time to tell us from all the way in his Wyoming home about Matthew and the importance of celebrating our differences, all while describing Matthew as an ordinary boy, which is where the oratorio begins. 

The first part, the Prologue, contains three songs, one of which is titled “Ordinary Boy”. Combined with “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass” and “We Tell Each Other Stories”, a wonderfully beautiful prologue is created. It sets the stage for the immense talent the ensemble and orchestra hold, giving exceptional merit to Artistic Director Darrell Christie and Theatrical Director Grahame Renyk. The sound is full with elongated notes and soprano voices—a particular soprano, Shannon Post, delivers a solo in “We Tell Each Other Stories” that sent shivers down my spine. The ability to gather a group of such intensely phenomenal singers in one room is astounding to me.

The second part of the oratorio, the Passion, hosts the most songs. Their melodies diversify throughout but each holds abundant emotion as they sing of the night Matthew was brutally beaten, the way in which he was left to die, and the aftermath—his funeral where anti-gay protestors showed up, questions for the two men who murdered him, and suffering his family faced. 

These songs feel like mountains that winds cascade down. Some breathe with long and large bellows, some exert short sweeps that steep in the valley below. “Fire of the Ancient Heart” with a solo by Freddy Baker expends all it has to give. Each musician is involved as much as the choir who is carried by Baker’s extraordinary vocals. There is such intensity to the song and all its parts move so fluidly that it’s as if hearts begin to race and heat truly fills the room. Soon after, “I Am Like You” is sung. The journey is quite opposite to the climactic “Fire of the Ancient Heart”. It is all acapella with no solos. The simplicity gives all focus to the words as it asks, “Am I like you?” to those who killed Matthew Shepard. Its pauses are earned and quite necessary as the seemingly simplest of songs holds the most complexities. 

The third part, the Epilogue, contains just three songs and a reprise of  “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass”. This last portion holds the hope of the piece. It echoes the words of Dennis Shepard who told an audience of people to celebrate their differences. It sings of love, forgiveness, and an ordinary boy once again.

Considering Matthew Shepard can be a challenging story to hear but even more so to perform, direct, and experience. Some of the things I heard Friday evening made me feel sick, made me well up, made a pit in my stomach as thick as a boulder but at my core, I thought, we need more. More exhuming audiences from comfort zones, more stories wrought with emotion, more performances that arise from hard truths. 

More information about The Isabel Voices’ performance of ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ can be found here. Details about the Matthew Shepard Foundation can be found here

If you are seeking local 2SLGBTQIA+ support and community resources, Queen’s University’s Human Rights and Equity Office has a Queer-Positive Spaces Resource (both university-affiliated and community-based), and Kingston Pride has a Community Resources page

If you are in distress, Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) is a confidential, anonymous, and non-judgmental volunteer-based support service available at (613)-544-1771 from 6pm to 2am. If it is outside their hours of operation and you are in crisis, please call the AMHS-KFLA 24-hour crisis line at 613-544-4229.

This article was edited on February 18th, 2024.