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Thread: OTF – Three African-American Operas

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    Senior Member Involved Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    Cool OTF – Three African-American Operas

    OTF returns after summer hiatus with my podcast for September. It aligns with an important anniversary – this year marks the 80-th anniversary of the creation of George Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess.

    If Porgy is without a doubt the most well-known opera that deals with African Americans in the Rural South at a time when they lived at the fringe of the White-dominated American society. However, there are many other works that have African American subject matters in the stage repertoire, and I chose to assemble three of them in today’s podcast.

    The first work chronologically is, in my mind, the only “true” African-American opera of the trio, as it not only discusses an African-American subject but was also composed by an African-American. The famed African-American composer Scott Joplin, most famous for his ragtime piano works, composed two operas on Afro-American subjects. His first, A Guest of Honor (1903) is an artistic depiction of the 1901 visit of African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, where he dined with President Teddy Roosevelt. Joplin brought A Guest of Honor to less than a dozen stages across the Midwest in September 1903, but the production was robbed of its receipts in Springfield, Illinois. Unable even to pay the bill for the touring company's stay at a Springfield boarding house, Joplin was forced to leave behind a trunk as collateral. It contained some of his personal effects, including unpublished manuscripts that may have included the score of A Guest of Honor. Those items were never recovered. Although a copyright for A Guest of Honor was applied for, the copyright office never received the customary copies of the score for its files – the opera is lost.

    Joplin’s second – and most ambitious – contribution to the genre is Treemonisha (1910, rev. 1972). Though it encompasses a wide range of musical styles other than ragtime (and Joplin did not refer to it as such)] it is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "ragtime opera".

    Treemonisha takes place in a former slave plantation in an isolated forest between Joplin's childhood town Texarkana and the Red River in Arkansas in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18-year-old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps' nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.

    The music of Treemonisha includes an overture and prelude, along with various recitatives, choruses, small ensemble pieces, a ballet, and a few arias – Gunther Schuler (who passed away earlier this year) was responsible for the orchestration of the revival at the Houston Grand Opera in 1972. Today’s performance is from a Norwegian ensemble, who does a fine job!

    The line between musical comedy, operetta and opera can sometimes be very blurred. The line is also further blurred when opera companies (or recording projects) approach musical comedies with operatic singers and in grand opera style. West Side Story, South Pacific and Show Boat are three examples of musical comedies I can think of that were afforded that attention. I think it’s pure happenstance that all three works deal with some form of “ethnic” storyline.

    Based on Edna Ferber's bestselling novel of the same name, Show Boat is a 1927 musical in two acts, with music by Jerome Kern and libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II. It follows the lives of the performers, stagehands, and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, over forty years, from 1887 to 1927. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love. The musical contributed such classic songs as "Ol' Man River", "Make Believe", and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".

    In 1941, the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodziński premiered the orchestral work Show Boat: A Scenario for Orchestra , a 22-minute orchestral work weaving together many themes from the show. Rodziński and the orchestra recorded it that same year, and it is that historical recording that I included in today’s podcast.

    The third and final opera is proposed here “in its entirety”, and pre-dates Porgy by about 15 years. It too is by George Gershwin (seconded here by Buddy DeSylva and not by his brother Ira). Blue Monday (Opera ŕ la Afro-American) was the original name of a one-act "jazz opera" - originally part of the George White Scandals of 1922 – later renamed 135th Street during a later production.

    DeSylva originally conceived a plan for writing a "jazz opera" set in Harlem and based on the Italian language verismo opera Pagliacci with Gershwin in the early 1920s, and George White’s music director Paul Whiteman, who had built much of his reputation on such experimental fusions of different musical and dramatic genres, persuaded White to include it in the 1922 Scandals.

    (We discussed Blue Monday on OTF back in 2013)

    When you “google” Blue Monday, you get results like “the saddest day of the year” (or if like me you are a Montreal Expos nostalgic devotee, it reminds us of a cold, fateful day in 1981). This Blue Monday is indeed sad, and does provide a Pagliacci-like scenario with jealousy and murder, with a bit of a silver lining at the end.

    Blue Monday synopsis -
    Blue Monday Libretto -

    Later this month, we will feature a vintage recording of Porgy and Bess on OTF. See you then!

    Scott JOPLIN (c.1868-1917)
    Treemonisha (1911) Selections
    (Adapted by Morten Gunnar Larsen)
    Eli-Johanne Rřnnekleiv (Treemonisha)
    Stĺle Ytterli (Andy/Parson Alltalk/Simon)
    Liv Elise Nordskog (Monisha)
    Hildegunn Sture Sylta (Lucy)
    Rune Thelen (Remus)
    Hermund Nesse (Foreman)
    Seim Songkor (Leif Egil Vatnřy, chorus master)
    Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra
    Morten Gunnar Larsen , conducting & piano

    Jerome KERN (1885-1945)
    Show Boat: A Scenario for Orchestra (1941)
    Cleveland Orchestra
    Artur Rodziński, conducting

    George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
    Blue Monday, opera ŕ la Afro-American (1922)
    Lawrence Craig, Baritone
    Kirk Walker, Baritone
    Marquita Lister, Soprano
    Thomas Young, Tenor
    Gregg Baker, Baritone
    William Henry Caldwell, Baritone
    Central State University Chorus
    Cincinnati Pops
    Erich Kunzel, conducting

    Podcast Link:

  2. Thanks Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) thanked for this post
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    Senior Member Involved Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    This montage will not be available on pour Pod-O-Matic Channel much longer... No. 209 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Such an excellent article! Wow!

    Treemonisha reflects some interesting American styles such as syncopated dance, barbershop quarter, and gospel hymns in addition to ragtime. It is a delightful work that was unfairly poorly received by public and critic when it premiered, resulting in financial problems for Joplin, who went into retirement and died two years later!

    I'd quote another great African-American opera composer (whose daughter I met - and I saw one of his operas live - Highway One, USA), William Grant Still. His most famous is Troubled Island.

    Harry Lawrence Freeman and Ulysses Kay also composed several operas. Frederick Douglass is Kay's best known. Freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company in Harlem, and Voodoo is his best work. He was very prolific, with 23 operas to his name.

    Continuing the tradition, more recently Anthony Davis composed X: The Life and Times of Malcom X, and Amistad.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    There is also Terence Blanchard’s Champion, about the welter-weight boxer Emile Griffith, which had its world premiere at Webster University (Missouri) in 2013.

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    Opera Lively Staff Member Top Contributor Member Hoffmann's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MAuer View Post
    There is also Terence Blanchard’s Champion, about the welter-weight boxer Emile Griffith, which had its world premiere at Webster University (Missouri) in 2013.
    In the recent issue of Opera News, there is an article on bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, who sang the title role in Champion. At the end of the article, it drops that Allicock will be reprising the role here in DC for Washington National Opera in 2017. It will be interesting to see what else WNO has cooked up for 2016-17 (announcement likely in March).

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