Friday, May 6, 2022

Black Opera

The Afro Future

By Naomi André, Ph.D.

In 2017, Opera Philadelphia presented We Shall Not Be Moved, a new work by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph. The opera follows five North Philadelphia teens as they find refuge at the headquarters of the MOVE organization, where a 1985 standoff with police infamously ended with a neighborhood destroyed and 11 people dead.

In her final essay of this three-part series, Seattle Opera Scholar-in-Residence Naomi André speculates about the future of Black Opera. Using the lens of Afrofuturism—a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the African American experience and aims to connect those from the Black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry—André charts one path forward. In this essay, she uses historic events, music, and the writings of Octavia E. Butler to point the way.

Naomi André is a professor in the University of Michigan, where her teaching and research focus on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race. Her writings include topics on Italian opera, Schoenberg, women composers, and teaching opera in prisons. Her publications include Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement and African Performance Arts and Political Acts (2021), which she co-edited. She has served as Seattle Opera’s Scholar-in-Residence since 2019.

As the history and current scene of Black Opera is still being written, speculation into the future could seem to be difficult, as it hasn’t even happened yet. However, in these years directly following the reckonings from the summer of 2020, it is possible to anticipate the immediate future given a few recent events and current developments, as well as to envision exciting new directions. The summer of 2019 saw the premieres of three operas that are already changing the present opera landscape going forward. These three works center Black narratives and voices: Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s Blue, Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley’s The Central Park Five, and Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Moreover, Anthony Davis’s 1986 opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (with a libretto by Thulani Davis) will see its first major revitalization since its premiere in a co-production revival beginning with Detroit Opera in May 2022 and then moving to Seattle Opera, Opera Omaha, and the Metropolitan Opera over the next few seasons.

In this world of thinking about Black people and experiences, what would it look like to venture into an Afrofuturistic path in opera? Through related artistic genres of speculative fiction, sci-fi, visual art, dance, and music Afrofuturism draws on the overarching tropes of positioning Black people in a future that moves past the legacy of oppression into an era of progress. Stemming from energies going back to Marcus Garvey in the beginning of the 20th-century with his Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities Leagues (UNIA) and his connection to the Back to Africa movement, a tenet of Afrofuturism is the envisioning of a new place—whether on Earth or via spaceship to another world—that welcomes a Black-centric way of life. From the music of Sun Ra with his avant-garde jazz movement and philosophy to George Clinton and his Parliament Funkadelic, other current artists (such as Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Solange) are embracing this movement that gained widespread exposure in Marvel Studio’s acclaimed blockbuster movie Black Panther (2018).

Parable of the Sower is an opera based on the writings of Octavia E. Butler by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. The opera follows the spiritual awakening of the protagonist Lauren Olamina amidst an America plagued by unrelenting greed, systemic injustice, and climate change denial.

The Future is Now

We do not have to wait for such directions in opera, as they are already here. Tosi Reagon and her mother, founding member of singing group Sweet Honey and the Rock, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, have created Parable of the Sower (based on Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel of the same name). Parable of the Sower premiered in 2017 and, back from a hiatus during the height of the pandemic, is currently on tour.

In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Oya Olamina and her followers seek to harness the energy that comes out of change so that they can create a space of possibility. They pioneered such a space by building a community, Acorn, which was then destroyed. I think of Acorn as representing Black achievement where a new way of living is presented that is not based on the white patriarchal hierarchies, or on capitalism and the so-called 'colorblindness' it promotes. This includes the “Black Wall Street” of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, OK, that was tragically massacred and burned to the ground in 1921. Other such attempts at a Black-centered new beginning can be seen in Rosewood, FL (with its slaughter and destruction in 1923), and even up to more recent times with MOVE, the communal organization started by John Africa in 1972 in West Philadelphia. This community was also destroyed, first by a shoot-out in 1978 and then a devastating bombing in 1985.

Located in Tulsa’s Black neighborhood of Greenwood (also known as “Black Wall Street”), this African American church was torched during the 1921 Massacre. The race riot resulted in 35 blocks of Greenwood burned to the ground, as many as 300 people dead, and nearly 10,000 residents left homeless.

There are two operas dedicated to these historical Black spaces of possibility. The first is We Shall Not Be Moved, composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain with a libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and directed/choreographed by Bill T. Jones. This opera was a co-commission by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theatre (NYC) and premiered in 2017. Anthony Davis, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Central Park Five (2019), is at work on Fire Across the Tracks: Greenwood 1921 (with a libretto by his frequent collaborator Thulani Davis) commissioned by Tulsa Opera. In the concert “Greenwood Overcomes” sponsored by Tulsa Opera (last summer 2021), Davóne Tines and pianist Howard Watkins premiered an aria from this opera, “There are many trails of tears.”

Continuing on the Afrofuturistic path I’d like to suggest that, metaphorically, art can be a “spaceship.” It can be a vehicle that can catapult us out of this current oppression where the past afterlives of slavery keep haunting the present. The destination of this spaceship is that space of possibility where our present has dealt with and repaired the harm of the past. This Afrofuture is the place where Black people are treated as fully human. A space where Black folks do not need hand-outs or special treatment. It is a place where all people are part of the same whole, where the smartest and best people come from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Art can help us imagine these places, envision these landscapes, and hear the sonic world of new possibilities.

The P Funk Mothership is a space vehicle model belonging to Dr. Funkenstein, a alter ego of funk musician George Clinton. Clinton and his band, collectively known as Parliament-Funkadelic, developed an influential form of funk music during the 1970s. The P Funk Mothership was an integral part of the band’s live concerts. The Smithsonian Institution acquired a replica Mothership in 2011, which is now located at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Excavating the Invisible

Throughout the United States, in arts companies as well as more broadly, we are seeing a new trend to consider diversity, equity, and inclusivity when hiring personnel. The writing is on the wall, and I venture to argue that we are in a new era of opera that is poised to be a time open to narratives that reflect a wider range of all of society’s experiences than ever before. The joy of working on expanding the opera canon to include operas by and about Black people has been an exciting venture as so much of this process has been about uncovering history that has been buried and witnessing energy for new operas composed in this vein. A future I hope for Black Opera is to see such excavation and innovation happen for other “invisible” groups in opera who have been hidden in the shadows. We do not know enough about early twentieth-century operas that were based on American Indian music (by white composers, but frequently with excerpts of tunes transcribed from indigenous tribes). Where are the other operatic works about indigenous people from all of the Americas? Do we have Latino/a/x musical narratives about and by Latino/a/x artists that show a truer representation of those experiences other than West Side Story? Are there Asian American and Pacific Island operas out there? Such questions expand our opera present for envisioning ourselves in an even more stupendous opera future.

Spotlight: Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006)

Octavia E. Butler was a renowned African American author who received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award for her body of work. Butler was author of several award-winning novels, including Parable of the Sower (1993), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Parable of the Talents (1995), winner of the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction novel published that year. Acclaimed for her lean prose, strong protagonists, and social observations, her stories range from the distant past to the near future, chronicling dystopian themes of Black injustice, global warming, women’s rights, and political disparity. Butler was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010.

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