Saturday, September 21, 2019 Operas by Black Composers Have Long Been Ignored. Explore 8.

Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times)

The New York Times

That “Porgy and Bess” — written by three white men, the Gershwin brothers and DuBose Heyward — has become known as the quintessential opera of the black American experience is a symbol of both the systemic racism found throughout the arts and the specifically slow-to-modernize nature of the operatic canon. (It opens the Metropolitan Opera’s season on Sept. 23.)

But though they’ve been ignored or underheard, African-American composers have long been crafting ambitious music dramas. Some of the works cited below exist in complete editions, ready to be programmed. Others are still emerging, thanks to the work of scholars reversing decades of neglect. (Dates indicate either publication or the first known performance.)

The “king of ragtime” had trouble getting this opera performed. Some of that difficulty had to do with branding, since “Treemonisha” — in which the youthful title character dodges danger, 20 years or so after the Civil War, in order to become a teacher and community leader — is not best understood as a ragtime opera. 

It’s more than that. The work has the dramatic cut-and-thrust of Verdi, some syncopations familiar from the composer’s piano music, as well as choral complexities and solo arias that can stand with canonical works of the Romantic and modern eras.
Joplin self-published the piano-and-vocal score — a costly endeavor. Gunther Schuller’s later arrangement put the work more squarely in the tradition of grand opera. But Rick Benjamin has made an effective arrangement for a smaller, more period-accurate orchestra.
A friend of Joplin, Mr. Freeman led his own company — the Negro Grand Opera Company — in an era when the Metropolitan Opera told him that it could “not see our way clear” to accepting his music for production.

When “Voodoo,” an evening-length warning against using magic for romantic fulfillment, was performed in a semi-staged production in New York in 2015, it was the first time the work had been performed since 1928. The piece has Wagnerian affinities, with Rhinemaiden-like music in the early going. But this influence is often suavely merged with spirituals and African percussion accents — often deployed in the service of love triangles and mystic conjuring spells.
Before she married W.E.B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham was known as perhaps the first black woman to have an opera performed, in 1932, for an audience of 25,000 at Cleveland Stadium. The score for that epic work, “Tom-Tom” — which traces the black experience from West Africa to the Harlem Renaissance — was long thought lost. (The full work was found in Ms. Graham Du Bois’s papers.) A performance at Harvard in 2018, organized by the scholar Lucy Caplan and the American Modern Opera Company, introduced tantalizing excerpts — some merging jazz harmony with European operatic influences.
The writer of the hit song “Charleston” was also a composer with theatrical experience. This one-act opera about labor politics, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, was performed in 1940. (The deliverance that a working-class community seeks is provided by the labor organizer of the title, who aides in the creation of a union despite the opposition of the local overseer.)

Once again, the score was long thought lost, aside from arrangements of one aria, “Hungry Blues,” recorded in 1939. Yet at the turn of the 21st century, Mr. Johnson’s piano score was discovered, and a reconstruction was mounted in 2002.
Often called the dean of African-American composers, Mr. Still also worked with Langston Hughes — on “Troubled Island,” which played at New York City Opera in 1949.

But his later “Highway One, USA” is a brutally compact piece of American verismo revolving around sibling rivalry and sexual jealousy; it could easily work on a double bill with another one-act (“Cavalleria Rusticana” or “Pagliacci,” perhaps). For now, a complete rendition is available on a recent recording by the St. Olaf Orchestra, and an excerpt was brilliantly recorded for Sony’s Black Composers Series, in the 1970s. 

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