The most famous African-American themed opera started out as a novel by DuBose Heyward. Composer George Gershwin read Porgy and contacted the author asking if he’d like to collaborate on what Gershwin referred to as a “folk opera.” That was in 1926. Nine years later, Porgy and Bess had its premiere in Boston at the Colonial Theatre. George Gershwin wrote the music, Heyward supplied the libretto and Heyward and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics. The original version of Porgy and Bess was 4 hours long. Cuts were made before it hit Broadway later that year. After a touring production ran its course, Porgy returned to Broadway in 1942 and ran for nine months.
Although Gershwin referred to it as an opera, Porgy and Bess was still considered by many to be a glorified musical. It wasn’t performed by an American opera company until 1976 by the Houston Grand Opera. It didn’t make it to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera until 1985 (Meanwhile it had already graced La Scala’s stage in Milan in 1955).
The story takes place in Catfish Row, a black tenement on the waterfront in Charleston, South Carolina. The depiction of black life in Catfish Row is unflinchingly grim. So much so that many took offense to the work. They said the opera showed African-Americans as stereotypes. Many productions of Porgy were begun but left unproduced because the casts were offended by the characters portrayals. Others, however, realized what Gershwin had given them – a monumental opus for black artists to perform (Ira Gershwin stipulated that all American productions of the work be performed by African-Americans).
Learn more about this opera and hear from some of the artists who performed it by listening to African American Voices.
Recently Daniel Gilliam talked with cellist Alisa Weilerstein about her new all-Dvořák album, released in January of this year. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led by Jiří Bělohlávek joins her in the Cello Concerto in B minor, and the rest of the album consists of some of Dvorak’s songs arranged for cello and piano, which she performs with Anna Polonsky. Alisa also talked about her work as an advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Although he concentrated on smaller pieces for piano, Scott Joplin wrote an opera. Joplin wrote Treemonisha in 1910 and had a vocal/piano score published the following year at his own expense. Joplin presented parts of the work to a Harlem audience, but it was met with little enthusiasm. Treemonisha wasn’t fully performed until 1975 by Houston Grand Opera with orchestration by Gunther Schuller. It received a “historically informed” arrangement in 2003 by Rick Benjamin to better reflect the instrumental forces at Joplin’s disposal.
It’s difficult to describe Treemonisha in a few words. It’s not grand opera. But it’s not completely a Ragtime opera either. There are stand-out songs in the work, including Aunt Dinah has blowed the horn and A real slow drag. The opera takes place on a former slave plantation near Texarkana in 1884. Treemonisha is a young educated former slave who rallies her community to throw away the shackles of ignorance and superstition. She is kidnapped and almost murdered, but is saved. The people choose her as their leader as they reject mysticism and realise the value of education.
Treemonisha has received recent performances in the Schuller arrangement. Rick Benjamin presents selections of his arrangement occasionally and released a recording of the full score in 2011.
Inon Barnatan has an envious career already, and can now add Artist-in-Association with the New York Philharmonic to his resume. The multi-year collaboration will give Barnatan his New York Philharmonic debut and multiple concerts with the Philharmonic and also in chamber settings.
He’s in town to play Ravel with the Louisville Orchestra on February 27th and March 1st, and stopped by to talk with Daniel Gilliam about the Ravel Piano Concerto he’s playing this week (and with the NY Phil), his new position in New York and his Harlem apartment that used to be a warehouse.
Four Saint in Three Acts is not neccesarily a “black opera,” but it was first performed by an all-black cast. With a witty text by Edith Stein and music provided by Virgil Thomson (photo), the opera contains actually about 20 saints in its three acts.
The opera features two 16th-century Spanish saints — the former mercenary Ignatius of Loyola and the mystic Teresa of Avila — as well as their colleagues, both real and imagined. Stein, who was Jewish and gay, was fascinated by the saints of Catholicism. The plot is difficult to describe. In fact, the plot is not as important to the enjoy the work as the word-play created by Stein and set to music by Thomson. On opening night in 1934, the governor of Connecticut commented: “Well, you can’t read the damn stuff, but you certainly can sing it.” Basically, the action takes place in Heaven and the saints are attending a lawn party.
Either despite – or due to – the work’s eccentric combinations of styles (some described as Cubist meets Southern Baptist), the opera was a success. Four Saints in Three Acts has been recorded more than once and live performances still take place today.