Black opera enters a golden age
Artists debut new works while scholars like Naomi André rediscover pieces long hidden in segregation’s shadows.
Black opera is in a golden age after 200 years of contributions by Black singers and composers largely have remained hidden, according to Carolina’s Naomi André.
André, the David G. Frey Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ music department, has researched and written about the history of Black opera composers, librettists, singers, conductors, orchestra members and the people who direct, costume, light and build sets.
By Black opera, André means operas with a Black composer or librettist — the person who writes the words — or those centered around Black characters and stories. One example is “Margaret Garner” (2015), based on the life of a runaway slave, for which Black novelist Toni Morrison wrote the words and Richard Danielpour, who is white, composed the music.
Generally speaking, the 400-year history of opera is dominated by white people. But through extensive research André and other historians have uncovered two centuries of Black opera. She calls it a “shadow opera culture.”
“I don’t mean it’s less than the white mainstream culture, but that it was happening simultaneously in the shadows because of segregation,” André said. “Sadly, when you don’t see something, that reinforces the idea that it must not be good. Many of these works that feature Black culture and participation are excellent, and we can look forward to a lot of new operas expanding the repertoire to give a more accurate version of opera history.”
Carolina Performing Arts will host the North Carolina premiere of “Omar,” an opera from Southern Futures at CPA Artist-in Residence Rhiannon Giddens, who wrote the libretto, and composer Michael Abels. The opera is about Omar ibn Said, a West African Islamic scholar who was enslaved in South Carolina, then escaped only to be jailed in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and enslaved again.
Black opera’s beginnings in the U.S. probably date to the 18th century, though ongoing research might extend that date earlier. It flourished in America’s churches, civic centers and Black communities. It includes the influence of early performers in all-Black companies such as Theodore Drury (1867-1943) and Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962) and composer William Grant Still (1895-1978).
“We are just beginning to uncover this rich history, and it complements what is being found in Europe, such as works by Joseph de Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose operatic compositions are being performed by LA Opera, at Glyndebourne (East Sussex, England) and, I hope, more venues,” André said. That research, especially in South Africa, South America and the Caribbean, is expanding the knowledge of how opera as a European genre has been embraced and adapted by many cultures.
André is also attuned to contemporary happenings through her scholarship and her in-depth writing for major opera companies such as the Seattle Opera, Detroit Opera and the Chicago Lyric. “We’re in a moment now where so many new operas around Black topics with Black participation are happening.”
André cites American contralto Marian Anderson’s 1955 performance in a major role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City as the central ripple that built to a growing wave of Black participation in the 1980s and continues to increase. “Anderson opened up the space for Black singers at one of the world’s most important houses and arguably America’s most important house,” she said. The New York Opera Company also set the stage for Black participation at major companies.
Access University Libraries to hear Anderson sing several classical compositions and spirituals and to learn more about her.
Such shifts continued in the ensuing years, with more Black singers in starring roles, new works about the Black experience and creators exploring themes of Afrofuturism or finding spaces for Black culture.
André recently examined those shifts in program notes for the Seattle Opera in her role as scholar-in-residence there. She sees a direct line from Anderson’s Met debut to pivotal moments like the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever production of an opera written by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” in 2021.
André grew up with the sound of her mother’s Julliard-trained voice. “She sang in an operatic voice as a guest soloist in churches, revivals and camp meetings focusing on the classical music of Mendelssohn, Handel and other religious anthems,” André said.
As a student at Barnard College in the 1980s, André and friends bought $5 tickets to stand for Metropolitan Opera performances. “We saw things all the time and it was fun. We could make snap decisions because we would eat in the dining hall, then take the subway downtown.” Those were mostly all-white productions, none featuring content about Black culture or history. Yet some shows had incredible Black singers — Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle and Simon Estes — in leading roles.
As Black productions rose in prominence, some such as “Amistad” (1997) and “Harriet Tubman” (2014), were about dark times.
“We have had a lot of the heavy trauma dramas, but we also have good, happy, important things that are not so heavy,” she said. For example, “The Factotum” premieres at the Lyric Opera in Chicago this month. “It was inspired by Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville,’ which is a comic opera.” This show, led by Grammy-nominated baritone Will Liverman and DJ King Rico, takes place in a Black barbershop on Chicago’s South Side. Another, 2021’s “The Snowy Day” based on a 1962 children’s book by African American author Ezra Jack Keats, launched at the Houston Grand Opera as a celebration of Black family.
The fact that so much Black opera has happened in the shadows brings an “excitement to this research, to uncovering an incredibly rich history in the unlikely genre of opera,” André said.
To learn more, André recommends Rosalyn Story’s “And So I Sing,” her own book “Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement” and the Black Opera Research Network.