Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954).
Harry Lawrence Freeman, known in his lifetime as “the black Wagner,” was the first African-American opera composer to have a staged work successfully produced. Born in Cleveland, Freeman eventually moved to Harlem, where he taught music and established the Negro Grand Opera Company.
His opera 1914 Voodoo is about a love triangle on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction, one of whose participants is a “Voodoo queen,” Lolo. The New York Herald Tribune noted that the opera portrayed
typical Negro life in the days of slavery, while the music includes spirituals, chants, arias, tangoes and other dances, among these a ritualistic voodoo ceremony.
In 2015, the opera was revived for the first time since 1928 by the Harlem Opera Theatre, who performed it in a concert version at the Miller Theater at Columbia University.
Here, Janinah Burnett as Lolo performs the “ritualistic voodoo ceremony.”
The Columbia University library also owns Freeman’s collected papers; this would be a great place to start for anyone who wants to do more research on Freeman, his work, or his life and times during the Harlem Renaissance.
Freeman was not, however, the first African-American composer of opera. The first known operatic work by a black composer in the U.S. was Virginia’s Ball by John Thomas Douglass (1847-1886), which had its premiere in New York in 1868. Unfortunately, the score has been lost. Below is an excerpt from his solo piano work “The Pilgrim.”
James Weldon Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), is best known for his setting of his brother’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Black National Anthem.” You will recall that he also did the choral arrangements for the short Bessie Smith film St. Louis Blues.
In July 2020, the NFL has promised to have “Lift Ev’ry Voice” sung along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games when it’s safe to let the season resume. Not everyone is happy about this decision — and not just white supremacists:
John Rosamund Johnson was also a successful composer of light operas for the Broadway stage around the turn of the twentieth century.
In addition, Johnson was a singer, who performed the role of Frazier in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess — the most enduringly successful opera about black American life.
The English National Opera performed Porgy for the first time in 2018, with a cast of young black English singers.
By specification of the Gershwin estate, Porgy must be performed by singers of African ancestry. This did not stop the Hungarian State Opera from cynically performing it with white singers earlier this year, however. Read more:
Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), above, who wrote in a more “internationalist,” neo-classical style, also wrote operas. This is a score excerpt from his 1985 opera Frederick Douglass.
In performance by New York’s Opera Ebony:
William Grant Still (1895-1978), above, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” wrote eight operas. His 1939 opera Troubled Island, about the 1804 slave rebellion in Haiti, was the first opera by a black composer to be performed by a major company, the New York City Opera.
A recent New York Times article discussed some of these works, as the Metropolitan Opera made the radical (for them) choice of opening their 2019-2020 season with Porgy and Bess. Read more here:
An excerpt from the 1987 opera Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry (above; 1908-2004), a composer who was the granddaughter of slaves.
An excerpt from the 2014 opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, by Nkeiru Okoye:
Anthony Davis’s 2019 opera, The Central Park Five:
Finally, for the first time in its 138-year history, the Metropolitan Opera presented a work by a Black composer, Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Terence Blanchard. Fire opened the house on September 27, 2021, after it had been shut for 18 months during the COVID pandemic.