African-American talent will be showcased in two operas at the tenth annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, August 2-4, in the Shandaken hamlet of Phoenicia. Damien Sneed, who led the previous Festival’s extraordinary gospel concert, conducts excerpts from Scott Joplin’s ragtime-influenced opera Treemonisha on Saturday afternoon, August 3. That night, Donizetti’s comedic Elixir of Love is set in an African village, featuring dancers and a drummer originally from West Africa.
Outside of black companies such as Opera Noir and Opera Ebony, opportunities for African-Americans to sing the traditional repertoire can be hard to come by. However, Festival executive director Maria Todaro said, “We take whoever is knocking our socks off at auditions. We don’t care about the color of their skin.” Baritone Lawrence Craig, who has been featured in past Festival productions, including Of Mice and Men, will sing Dulcamaro in Elixir. Bass Morris Robinson returns on Friday, August 2, for the opening concert, a selection of favorite arias from the past ten years of Festival presentations.
This year’s featured operas provide an abundance of roles specifically for black artists, including singers, dancers, instrumentalists, and the multi-talented Sneed, whose career, not unlike Joplin’s, spans composing, arranging, conducting, and piano-playing, as well as combining classical and popular music.
Scott Joplin was born just after the Civil War, the son of a freed slave. He became the leading composer of ragtime, which was named for its syncopated or “ragged” rhythm, blending European march and dance forms with African polyrhythms. Ragtime gained enormous popularity across the U.S. in the early 1900s, with Joplin’s most famous composition, “Maple Leaf Rag,” selling millions of copies of sheet music, each individual sale earning him one cent in royalties.
Around 1903, Joplin, who had classical training, turned to opera, creating The Guest of Honor, about black leader Booker T. Washington’s controversial dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. A tour of the show failed when the box office receipts were stolen. Although the score of Joplin’s next effort, Treemonisha, was praised by a reviewer, he died before he could raise enough money for a full production.
Ragtime waned in popularity with the rise of jazz, which built on the rag’s syncopated rhythms. In the 1970s, when Joplin’s music was used for the score of the film The Sting, a ragtime revival brought the form to the attention of classical musicians. The music and libretto for Treemonisha were rediscovered, and several productions were mounted, including one at the Houston Grand Opera, where Sneed is currently Music Director and Composer in Residence. “He’s given Treemonisha a jazzy twist,” said Todaro.
The plot deals with conflicts in post-Civil War African-American culture, when the desire to move into mainstream American society conflicted with the pull of the old African ways and superstitions. The title character is a young woman who is sent off to receive an education but has difficulty reentering her community, leading to her kidnapping by “conjure men.” Joplin comes down in favor of education as vital for both men and women, while honoring the vitality of African tradition.
Todaro, who has turned in recent years from singing to directing, decided this year’s opera, Elixir of Love, should be “a comedy, instead of all those characters being stabbed, drowned, and hanged. The music is bubbly and light.” But when she sat down with the libretto, she realized the opera she had adored as a teenager now felt superficial and absurd. Seeking a way into the text, she decided to shift the qualities of the characters. Instead of presenting the lovelorn Nemorino as a fool, she has made him shy, unable to express his attraction to the most beautiful girl in the village. Adina, traditionally depicted as a slut, has become a girl who secretly loves Nemorino but flirts with men in order to provoke him into speaking his mind.
To add a further twist, Todaro relocated the action from Italy to Ghana, probably a first for Elixir. “We’ve been researching weddings in Ghana, local deities, the economy,” said Todaro. “We’ll have four chickens onstage, and a goat named Houdini. It’s all part of our mission of making opera accessible. People see opera as snobby, elitist, too expensive, and impossible to understand. We have supertitles, we keep our ticket prices low, and we make the performances fun,” while bringing world-class performers to sing under the night sky in Phoenicia’s Parish Field.
Other events scheduled for this year’s Festival include the a cappella group Lady Parts, returning to sing songs of the abolition movement; Stephen Templeton’s play Souvenir, about dissonant diva Florence Foster Jenkins, an amateur operatic soprano; pianist Justin Kolb playing music of the African diaspora, with writer and actor Carey Harrison reading relevant texts, some by himself and others by Langston Hughes; the local Rock Academy students performing the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar; a closing gala of talent-rich locals including Loren Daniels, Robert Burke Warren, Harvey Boyer, and student performers; and to top it all off, a Sunday night DJ dance party for everyone, held on the Festival stage.
The 10th annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice will run from Friday, August 2, to Sunday, August 4, at Phoenicia’s Parish Field and other locations around town. For tickets and schedule, see https://www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.