Friday, September 11, 2015

Afro-American Opera

No. 209 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


My podcast for September 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, 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 It contained some of his personal effects, including unpublished manuscripts that may have included the score of A Guest of Honor.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 à 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.

(Whiteman and Gershwin would later collaborate on another “fusion” project a few years later – the work became Rhapsody in Blue).

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 -

I think you will love this music too.