Saturday, November 13, 2010

Opera News: 'Barry Singer looks at the careers of Samuel Barber and William Grant Still'

[Just Tell The Story - Troubled Island; Edited by Judith Anne Still and Lisa M. Headlee;]

Barry Singer compares the careers of Samuel Barber and William Grant Still in this lengthy piece for Opera News, published by The Metropolitan Opera Guild. We have excerpted selected portions dealing mainly with William Grant Still:

Opera News
February 2010, Vol. 74, No. 8
“Samuel Barber's debut opera, Vanessa, followed William Grant Still's debut opera, Troubled Island, by less than a decade. Both were hard-won labors of love that each composer initiated without a commission and ultimately brought to fruition on the strength of his own tenacity. Both operas were hits with their opening-night audiences - Vanessa at the Met, Troubled Island at New York City Opera's then-City Center home. Both, nonetheless, soon disappeared from the active repertory. In the 1990s, Vanessa would be restored to a respected place in opera, a rebirth that Barber did not live to witness. For Still's Troubled Island, though, resurrection has never really come.

“As the centennial of Barber's birth approaches, it is intriguing to view him through the contrasting prism of William Grant Still. In many senses, no American composer of the twentieth century contrasts with Barber more. It's not just that Barber was white and Still black; Barber a Brahmin from the North, Still a middle-class son of the South. Nor is it merely that Barber wrote racially neutral music, while Still wrote music whose very essence was race. Rather, the unexpected confluences between the two serve to cast their blatant contrasts into relief.

“It took Still almost ten years to persuade any opera company to mount Troubled Island, once he completed the piano score in 1939. The Met was the first to reject it, general manager Edward Johnson deeming it simply 'unsuitable.' Conductor Leopold Stokowski then took up Troubled Island, going so far as to announce to the press that he himself would produce and conduct 'this poetic and dramatic opera at the earliest possible moment at the City Center in New York,' calling it 'one of the most inspired expressions of Negro art in the United States.' A campaign was even begun in 1945 to raise funds for Stokowski's production, spearheaded by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself, with Eleanor Roosevelt as honorary chair. Within the year, though, Stokowski had resigned from City Center, and production plans stalled. Still hung on. His librettist, Langston Hughes, barely did, unsuccessfully pressing Still to offer Troubled Island to Broadway producers. In the end, Still's purist determination was rewarded, if not exactly affirmed. Troubled Island was at last mounted by New York City Opera on March 31, 1949, but with Caucasians in blackface for both lead roles. Still had hoped to cast black singers in the principal parts. (Robert Weede sang the role of Jean-Jacques Dessalines at the opera's premiere on March 31, 1949, while African-American bass-baritone Lawrence Winters assumed the role for the two subsequent performances of the opera on April 1 and May 1, 1949.)

“Effusively received by audiences during its three-performance run, Troubled Island was nevertheless widely dismissed, if not patronized, by the critics. 'In all, Troubled Island had more of the soufflé of operetta than the soup bone of opera,' wrote Time magazine, for example. '[Still] is still striving for something not yet within his grasp,' added The New York Journal-American.” “Still, at the time, claimed a conspiracy by the critics to put this over-reaching 'colored boy' in his place. 'A white journalist in New York [later identified as The New York Times's Howard Taubman] came to me several days before the opening,' Still recounted in a 1950 article, 'and warned me that the critics were planning to pan it.'”

“As a black composer, Still was a pioneer. His arrival in New York in the early 1920s coincided with the efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance, a fashionable age for 'the New Negro' encompassing highbrow literary ferment and low-down cabaret fever. Still quickly broke through as the movement's leading (and virtually lone) classical-music star, taken up by the composer Edgar Varèse, who offered the premiere of Still's From the Land of Dreams in 1925 and Levee Land in 1926, via his own avant-garde-promoting International Composers' Guild Orchestra.”

“Legacies are not always commensurate with achievement or even output. Today, a search of iTunes yields 1,325 'songs' for Samuel Barber compared to less than 300 for William Grant Still. Predictably, Barber's Adagio for Strings and Still's First Symphony, respectively, predominate. There are two complete recordings of Barber's original Vanessa in four acts, plus one complete recording of the later three-act version. Of Troubled Island there is nothing.” [William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at, where a complete Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma is found.]

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