Before Porgy and Bess, there came many other operas about the lives of black people, written by black people. There were also operas about the lives of white people, written by black people. Did you know that the inspiration for much of Mozart’s work came from his rivalry with a composer of African heritage? What about the fact that Shirley Graham Du Bois wrote an opera before ever writing the books that got her onto school reading lists? Did you know Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, loved opera and poured his heart and soul into trying to produce his opera Treemonisha before he died?

Until the past few months, I didn’t know any of these things either. I should have. We all should have.

Blacked Out

I have made it a project of mine recently to write opera guides on for works by under-represented composers, and the more I write and research the more frustrated I become. I have been a musician my entire life, since learning to play the piano as a young child, and in the past decade have worked in the industry professionally, priding myself in my broad knowledge of opera. Yet many of these names and works were completely unfamiliar to me. This was not an omission due to the quality of the work involved, as much of this work is of exceptional compositional and dramaturgical quality. The reason these composers did not exist in my textbooks, in the canons of composers, or the cultural knowledge of my musical heritage: their race.

Perhaps more recent editions of textbooks have begun to correct these omissions and are giving these composers their place in history. I know that the political and social unrest of the past year has certainly turned more attention to the historical and cultural wealth that has been unfairly discounted for years, with online performances of under-performed works appearing all over, or plans to stage previously unseen works in the near future. These are all positive things and I pray that these shifts may continue far beyond tokenism and diversity-positive marketing.

This is certainly not the first blog post to appear with a list of black opera composers and the operas they wrote. Nor do I imagine this one post can go any way towards repairing the centuries of damage that has been done to a rich musical heritage. What I do hope is that by bringing these particular composers and their key works to the attention of a wider audience, they will be frustrated as I have been that these works have been left out of our education and knowledge, and they will take this as a springboard for their own exploration and research.

Please take everything you learn here today and share it with as many people as you can. Let’s get these stories told, so that those under-represented works and under-represented stories become part of the everyday fabric of the opera stage.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges  

  • Born: 1745, Baillif, Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe.
  • Lived: Most of his life in Paris, France.
  • Died: 1799 from an illness, cared for by a close friend, after military service and imprisonment during the French Revolution.
  • Parents: George Bologne de Saint-Georges and Anne, one of Bologne’s African slaves, known as Nanon.
  • Spouse: At the time, Joseph Bologne was not legally allowed to marry due to his race.
  • Special skills: Swordsman, violinist, orchestra leader, instrumental and vocal composer, opera composer.
  • Operas: Six, including Ernestine (1777), La Partie de chasse (1778), L’Amant Anonyme (1780), La Fille Garçon (1787), Aline et Dupré (1788), Guillaume tout coeur ou les amis du village (1790). The only manuscripts that have survived are a few songs from Ernestine and the complete score for L’Amant Anonyme.
  • Important Notes: It is discouraged to refer to Joseph Bologne as ‘Le Mozart Noir’ or ‘Black Mozart’. He was Mozart’s predecessor, and his work should be celebrated for its own exceptional merit without comparison to a composer whose own work includes racial slurs aimed towards Joseph Bologne. Also, by using these terms, Joseph Bologne’s name is erased from his own title. You wouldn’t call Bach ‘Baroque Beethoven’.

Recommended opera: L’Amant Anonyme

Joseph Bologne’s opera L’Amant Anonyme is the only remaining complete manuscript by the composer. Being from the early classical period, it has all the finesse and delicacy of other contemporary composers such as Haydn or Hasse. The story is a sweet romantic comedy and it is an excellent predecessor to Cimarosa’s Il matromonio segreto, or Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

A young man, desperately in love with a wealthy young widow who has renounced men, sends her gifts and letters under the alias of her secret admirer. Will the temptation of love and affection bring her to his side, or will he alienate one of his closest friends forever?

Read our guide to L’Amant Anonyme here:

Scott Joplin

  • Born: 1867, Texas.
  • Lived: Texarkana, Chicago, Sedalia.
  • Died: 1917, New York City.
  • Parents: Giles Joplin, a former slave, and Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American.
  • Spouse: Belle Jones (married 1899; divorced 1904), Freddie Alexander (married 1904), Lottie Stokes (married 1909).
  • Special skills: Multi-instrumentalist, musician, pianist, composer, the King of Ragtime.
  • Operas: A Guest of Honor (1903), Treemonisha (1911).

Recommended Opera: Treemonisha

During his lifetime, Joplin never got to see his opera Treemonisha fully staged, despite immense sacrifice on his part to have it performed. While this opera is often referred to as a ‘Ragtime Opera’, the term is actually a misnomer and the opera has far more in common with the classical opera genre than with ragtime. The use of ragtime, dances, and other culturally significant musical genres within this opera are a type of road map to represent the lived experiences of the characters in his opera.

The story focuses on a young girl of 18, called Treemonisha, who has grown up to be a leader of her people. On a liberated slave plantation, she stands up against those members of her society who prey on the vulnerable, and fights for reason, education, and morality.

Read our guide to Treemonisha here:

Shirley Graham Du Bois

  • Born: 1896, Indianapolis, Indiana.
  • Lived: Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Colorado Springs, Spokane, Seattle, Portland, Sorbonne (France), Baltimore, New York, Accra (Ghana), Cairo (Egypt).
  • Died: 1977, Beijing, China, after renouncing her US Citizenship and becoming a citizen of Ghana.
  • Parents: African Methodist Episcopal minister, David A. Graham.
  • Spouse: Author and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois.
  • Special skills: Political and Racial Activist, Novelist, Leader, held a degree in Fine Arts and Music History, expert on anti-colonialism.
  • Operas: Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro (1932).

Recommended Opera: Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro

Du Bois wrote the opera Tom-Tom before she had finished university and it premiered to an audience of 25,000 people, over two performances at Cleveland Stadium. Despite this success, and Du Bois’ efforts, it has not been staged again since. Du Bois abandoned writing operas because of this.

Tom-Tom is truly epic. It tells the story of a community of people taken from an unnamed village in West Africa and forced into slavery on a plantation. They are liberated from slavery and take up residence in Harlem, during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Led by Voodoo, the older members of the community only want to be allowed to return home, while the younger members try to integrate into the new world they live in, with one embracing life as a dancer in the cabaret and another becoming a baptist minister. Du Bois incorporates elements of African music, lots of Spirituals, Jazz, Cabaret, and more traditionally operatic elements throughout this work. It is as much a history of the people as it is a history of the development and influence of African-American music.

Read our guide to Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro here:

A note on Porgy

Tom-Tom premiered 3 years before Porgy and Bess, which is considered to be ‘the first great American opera’ primarily for its use of popular contemporary styles and its representation of the lives of people in slavery. I would encourage readers to watch Porgy and Bess with the critical understanding that it is a romanticized interpretation of the lives of African-Americans, written by two white Americans, George and Ira Gershwin. Perhaps its enduring popularity in the opera houses could be shared by Tom-Tom going forward.

Anthony Davis

  • Born: 1951, Paterson, New Jersey.
  • Lives: San Diego, California, teaching at The University of California.
  • Special skills: Political activist, composer, musician, pianist.
  • Operas: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1985), Under the Double Moon (1989), Tania (1992), Amistad (1997/revised 2008), Wakonda’s Dream (2007), Lear on the 2nd Floor (2012), The Central Park Five (2019).
  • Important Notes: Much of Davis’s work has been inspired by political and racial activism, presenting stories of key figures in African-American history. In 2020, Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with his work The Central Park Five, as recognition of the importance of this work.

Recommended Opera: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X

Davis’ opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X is a biography of Malcolm X, a key figure of racial activism during the 20th century. Using biographical information, media reports, and recorded speeches, Davis’ cousin, Thulani Davis, created a libretto for a series of nine vignettes which snapshot the key moments that influenced and transformed Malcolm’s life.

We see the day his father was killed, the moment the Social Worker puts Malcolm and his siblings into foster care, and his leaving foster care to live in Boston with his half-sister, Ella. From here, Malcolm falls into a life of crime and eventually ends up in prison. After his conversion to Islam in prison, Malcolm begins preaching in Harlem and the seeds of violent retaliation against the oppressors are sown within his community. Silenced by Elijah, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm makes the Hajj to Mecca, and realizes that the message of Islam is one of peace, rather than violence. However, when he returns to Harlem the damage is already done. Malcolm is targeted and eventually assassinated. Like Joplin and Du Bois, Davis’ work is interspersed with elements of Spirituals, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and other genres, to illustrate both the time period in which the opera is set and the importance of musical genres in certain communities.

Excerpts from Anthony Davis’s operas, including Street’s aria from X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X

Read our guide to X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X here:

I hope these short introductions to these four important works have given you the inspiration to begin your own exploration and research. Keep coming back to StageAgent as we build this database and use our tag search to find more works by ‘black composers’ ‘composers of color’ or ‘african-american composers’ over the coming months.

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