Monday, June 22, 2015

Sergio A. Mims: New York Times: ‘Voodoo,’ Opera by the African-American Composer H. Lawrence Freeman, Is Revived

Musicians rehearse at the Convent Avenue 
Baptist Church for “Voodoo,” a long-
unheard opera by the pioneering 
African-American composer and Harlem 
Renaissance figure H. Lawrence Freeman.
James Estrin/The New York Times 

Sergio A. Mims:

No doubt this is a major story of vast importance.

Michael Cooper

June 21, 2015

He was described as a black Wagner in the late 19th century, went on to write more than 20 operas and formed the Negro Grand Opera Company, which he once conducted at Carnegie Hall. But after the pioneering African-American composer H. Lawrence Freeman died in 1954, he fell into obscurity, with his works unpublished, unrecorded and, for decades, unperformed.

Until now. Mr. Freeman’s opera “Voodoo,” about a love triangle on a plantation in post-Civil War Louisiana, will be given its first performances since 1928 on Friday and Saturday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. The revival offers a glimpse of a nearly forgotten chapter of African-American operatic achievement, and another chance for Mr. Freeman to claim the place in musical history he had always sought against long odds, lengthened by discrimination.

“Voodoo” might have remained an unheard and unperformed historical footnote had Mr. Freeman’s family not placed his papers and scores in Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2007. The collection interested scholars, who were drawn to his accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, and also came to fascinate Annie Holt, a graduate student who cataloged it. A year later she helped start a small opera company of her own, Morningside Opera, with the vague idea of someday mounting one of Mr. Freeman’s forgotten operas.

That is how the strains of “Voodoo,” in which passages of Wagnerian grandeur alternate with spirituals and a cakewalk, came to be heard again for the first time in decades last week in practice rooms at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, where Morningside Opera and its partners in the production, Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players, ran through the work.

The rehearsal drew Alberta Grannum Zuber, 88, who joined the Freeman family when one of her sisters married the composer’s son, Valdo. Ms. Zuber sang a small role in Mr. Freeman’s Egyptian-theme opera “The Martyr” when he conducted it at Carnegie in 1947. As she listened to the young singers bring the long-dormant “Voodoo” back to life, Ms. Zuber said that she did not think that Mr. Freeman ever doubted that he would be remembered for posterity.

“I think he felt it in his bones,” she said.

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