Thursday, December 6, 2007

Mood Music For Minorities

Whenever I've brought a young friend into the War Memorial Opera House for the first time in his life, my companion has often been quick to remark that "This audience is so old and white it's frightening!" A sad, but true observation for, despite all the propaganda used to sell the arts to the masses, opera has largely remained a conservative white man's art form. Productions of Turandot and Madama Butterfly don't flood the theatre with Puccini-crazed Orientals. Nor are performances of Aida emptying the streets of Harlem.

If traditional arts institutions genuinely desire to cultivate new audiences from America's minority groups, they're occasionally going to have to offer alternative repertoire which will spark popular interest. Several years ago Michigan Opera Theatre attempted to make inroads among Detroit's ethnic groups by staging a series of minority-oriented operas -- Armen Tigranian's Anoush, Stanislaw Moniuszko's The Haunted Castle and Scott Joplin's Treemonisha -- with help from the local Armenian, Polish and Black communities. Although one wonders whether the people who bought tickets for these events were sufficiently motivated to attend subsequent performances of operas which lack a similar ethnic appeal (most of M.O.T.'s ticket buyers were prodded into the opera house by a sense of ethnic pride or some less-than-subtle pressure from their church congregations) at least they were introduced to the art form with music which was comfortable for them on a subcultural level.

Unfortunately, arts marketing personnel who embrace the "reefer madness" philosophy of subscription sales continue to delude themselves with the assumption that one operatic experience will have the same dizzying, and life-long effect on a new attendee as a puff of marijuana does on an innocent teenager. Despite the presence of large Black communities and adventurous impresarios in cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Houston, opera audiences have remained overwhelmingly white. This curious racial imbalance was momentarily rectified at the recent world premieres of two operas which -- at least from the standpoint of the minorities they represent -- were generated of their people, written for their people and performed by their people. While neither opera seems destined to match the popularity of La Traviata, Carmen or La Boheme, its premiere nevertheless represents an important step forward in the growth of American opera as a popular art form.


Last month, as part of the fifth annual Inter-American Arts Festival, Opera de Camara de Puerto Rico unveiled Roberto Sierra's two-act chamber opera Entitled El Mensajero de Plata (The Silver Messenger) at San Juan's Centro de Belles Artes. Sierra's new work, with its libretto by Myrna Casas, offers several novelties. First of all, one doesn't hear too many operas sung in Spanish. And, since the plot of El Mensajero de Plata centers around the celebration of the Feast of St. James in the Mediania sector of the town of Loiza, this opera (which was sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the "Opera For the '80s & Beyond" program) has plenty of appeal for Puerto Ricans.

Having visited Loiza earlier this year, certain native touches were clear in my mind. However, when faced with a bilingual program and a strong sense of local tradition, I must confess to feeling a little bit out of my element. While Sierra's score had some very interesting moments and Jaime Suarez's sets and costumes brought a sense of local color to the production, the use of dark masks designed to show the different shades of skin found in the population of Loiza (colors derived from the local blend of African, Spanish and Indian cultures) caused a severe problem onstage. Since most of the opera takes place at night, these masks made it impossible to see anything but floating torsos for a good part of the evening -- a theatrical touch which director Pablo Cabrera would have been well advised to forego.

Under the musical direction of Joel Sachs, the cast of Puerto Rican singers (some of whom had been flown back to San Juan from German opera houses for this event) performed with a great sense of artistic commitment.


The first lines sung by black revolutionary leader Malcolm X in Anthony Davis's new opera occur when the protagonist is being brutalized in jail by less-than-sympathetic white cops. A provocative work which confronts white audiences with the ugly facts of racism, "X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X)" gains quick sympathy from those members of the audience who don't belong to Ronald Reagan's country club set. Indeed, the protagonist's claims that "We are a nation trapped inside a nation, dying to be born" and that "They can kill Malcolm X but Blacks will stand up because we have rights" echo Harvey Milk's familiar statements with an eerie musicality.

Not only does Anthony Davis's music capture the sound of the Black ghetto's streets, it provides a powerful backdrop to Malcolm X's personal odyssey in search of inner peace. The score to "X" (which includes elements of jazz, gospel, and scat singing in addition to some genuinely operatic writing) prompted one friend to comment that "this sounds like the kind of music Leonard Bernstein's been trying to get right for the past 30 years!"

"X" also gave NYCO's audiences the chance to meet some stunning black talents. In addition to Ben Holt's lanky portrayal of Malcolm X, Marietta Simpson's Ella and Priscilla Baskerville's Louise Little scored strongly. Thomas Young's performances as both a street pimp and as Elijah Muhammad revealed a major talent.

New York City Opera's superb production (which was performed in English with English-language supertitles) was immensely enhanced by Rhoda Levine's sensitive staging and Christopher Keene's tight conducting. Although Anthony Davis' opera might have strong appeal to some European opera companies, the only American company (other than NYCO) which I can imagine staging "X" would be Detroit's Michigan Opera Theatre. Indeed, next year, when the Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of John Adams's Nixon in China, I think the funding will flow much easier.

Therefore, the New York City Opera, and particularly Beverly Sills, deserve an extra measure of respect for presenting the only American opera to be based on the life of a contemporary and highly controversial Black political figure. Although there is talk of reviving "X" in 1988, fundraising for the opera's world premiere was extremely difficult, largely due to racial prejudice. While it wasn't easy, it was certainly worth the effort. I'm happy to report that "X" is an artistic achievement of which the New York City Opera can and always will be proud.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 13, 1986.

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