Tuesday, November 19, 2019

SFCV.org: Zenobia Powell Perry’s Tawawa House Gets a Welcome Revival

Yolanda Rhodes, Cheryll Knox, and Elizabeth Garmon in Zenobia Powell Perry’s Tawawa House at the Presidio Chapel | Credit: Jaygayle Music
San Francisco Classical Voice
Jeff Kaliss
October 22, 2019
There’s gratitude due Jeannie Gayle Pool, founder of the International Congress on Women in Music, for reconstructing the score of Zenobia Powell Perry’s 1987 opera, Tawawa House. And gratitude abounded on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Presidio Chapelwhere Pool’s Jaygayle Music and the African American Composer Initiative presented a delightful concert performance of the opera, whose first full staging had to wait for a 2014 production by Townsend  Opera (now Opera Modesto), 10 years after Perry’s death at the age of 96.
Such is the unsurprising circumstance of a composer no doubt denied opportunity because of both her gender and her race, African-American and Creek Indian. “She knocked on many doors,” said Janis-Rozena Peri, Perry’s soprano recitalist daughter, who sang in the Tawawa House debut, 32 years ago, “but she really wasn’t assertive.” Perry’s music deserved assertion, based on the music I heard at the Presidio and the enthusiastic response to it from both performers and audience.
The dedication of the production to firebrand congressperson Elijah Cummings, who died last week, fit the story of the opera’s title institution, a large building in central Ohio owned by Levi Coffin, a white Quaker farmer, and maintained in the mid-19th century as a hostel for runaway slaves on the so-called underground railroad. The concert setting made use of two narrators — Peri and Greg Savage, an actor and cofounding member of Modesto’s Sankofa Theatre Company. They provided spoken historical notes and the setting of the scenes in which the opera’s 27 short musical numbers play out.
Pool’s assemblage of Perry’s score was transposed for piano by Josephine Gandolfi, who also performed on piano, sometimes solo and sometimes in a four-hand arrangement with Deanne Tucker. LaDoris Cordell, a former California Superior Court Judge, also performed some solo piano and with the vocal ensemble, some of who seemed loosely associated with specific characters in this concert version. There was no cast list in the program. The ensemble was almost exclusively black, with a majority of women.
Most of the score involved Perry’s resetting of traditional hymns, gospel/spiritual songs, dance numbers, and popular music. From the opening full ensemble number in Act I, “Let the Knowing Speak,” Perry proved artful at reimagining older music (like the hymn, here) through the use of altered chords and such alluring devices as open fifths. I wondered if her study with Darius Milhaud at Wyoming University had been an influence in this.

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