Joshua Bell with the NY Phil

Bell Joshua_ Perf shot 1 2010_PC Eric Kabik

This Saturday’s New York Philharmonic broadcast will be an adventurous concert with Ives’ Symphony No. 4 and NY Phil composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse’s Prospero’s Rooms. Joshua Bell joins the orchestra on Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium). Saturday at 9pm.

Blackness in Opera: Famous Firsts


Operas with prominent characters of African heritage are many in history. But many were not initially sung by black artists.

Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave was the first African-American to sing the role of the Ethiopian princess Aida in 1924 in Italy. Gloria Davy (photo) was the first black American to play Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958. Before that, the role was sung by non-blacks in dark makeup.

Another Verdi opera features a main character who’s black. The Moor Otello is still being sung by some non-black performers in blackface. The Shakespeare original has seen black actors own the role. Ira Aldridge played Otello in productions during the 1820′s. The most prolific Otello of our time is Placido Domingo, a Spaniard.

The English premiere of Koanga (1935) by Frederick Delius starred Australian caucasian John Brownlee and Russian diva Oda Slobodskaya in the principle roles. Now current productions always feature singers of African descent.

Enjoy this video of Leontyne Price who was perhaps the greatest Aida of the 20th century.

Blackness in Opera: Porgy and Bess


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.

Alisa Weilerstein All-Dvořák

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.





Blackness in Opera: Treemonisha

Scott Joplin

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.