Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Jubilee Synopsis

© Philip Newton

Created and directed by Tazewell Thompson
Vocal arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell
Orchestrated by Michael Ellis Ingram

Nineteenth century. A theater in Nashville, Tennessee. Thirteen members of The Fisk Jubilee Singers are gathering behind the curtain in vocal warmups, preparing to perform their concert of Spirituals. Post show, the singers retreat to the old military barracks set aside by northern abolitionists to house former slaves, now students and teachers of The Fisk Colored School. Eventually changed to Fisk University.

While turning over the earth in their pitiful vegetable garden, their excavation makes a gruesome discovery. Buried beneath the surface of the ground, instruments of slavery and bondage: chains; manacles; shackles; harnesses; iron masks and mouth muzzles. The singers sell them for Bibles and spellers. To raise funds for their school, the singers sing at a ladies’ tea, in a fashionable part of Nashville.

They sing for funds in small towns and street corners, through all kinds of weather. Stranded at a railway depot, a jeering white mob attack the singers and beat them, mercilessly. Undaunted, the singers pack their meager belongings and continue their fundraising tours. In a church basement practice hall rehearsal, the singers receive news of an invitation from Queen Victoria to sing at a command performance in England. The singers rehearse their program for the Queen.


The Fisk Jubilee Singers arrive in London and, at Buckingham Palace, perform for Queen Victoria. They return home to Tennessee by ship, train, and horse-drawn carriage. In the following years, the men sing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC. The women sing at a special church service. The singers gather and listen, as a first recording of The Fisk Jubilee Singers is released. In the epilogue we hear their individual postmortems.

Jubilee runs October 12-25, 2024 at McCaw Hall. Tickets and info at seattleopera.org/jubilee.

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