Blackness in Opera, Pt 1

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As part of our celebration of Black History Month, WUOL will present a series on Blackness in Opera. The very first opera to feature an African-American theme was written by an Englishman. Frederick Delius wrote about the American slave trade in his third opera “Koanga.” Written in 1896-97, Delius drew upon his experiences while living on a Florida orange plantation. He lived near the home of a black family and spent many evenings there playing music with them. As he did, he soaked up the unique harmonies of the American black tradition.

The story tells of an African prince, Koanga, who is sold into slavery in the American south. Also an Voodoo priest, Koanga curses his captors. His owners introduce Koanga to the beautiful slave Palmira in hopes to assuage his wrath. It is an ill-fated love however as the opera ends with the execution of Koanga and Palmyra’s suicide.

Although Koanga was Delius’s third opera, it was the first to be performed. It was first staged publicly in Elberfeld, Germany in 1904. Koanga received its British premiere in London in 1935. The opera’s first performers were not of African heritage. The London debut featured the noted Australian baritone John Brownlee and the Russian soprano Oda Slobodskaya as Palmyra. There is currently only one complete recording of Koanga available on compact-disc. One of Delius’s most popular pieces is an arrangement of a dance from the opera called “La Calinda.” The work is still performed in live performances sporadically.

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