This week I'm taking a break from discussing the 20th & 21st century operas Marble City Opera has produced to talk about a new opera I conceived of this week, and is now already being created.
A little background. In February, we produced a World Premiere Opera, Shadowlight, about an African American painter from Knoxville, TN, Beauford Delaney. The city of Knoxville came together to celebrate this world famous artist who grew up in Knoxville, yet despite being world famous and a hugely successful painter in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and later in Paris, he's largely unknown. How can that be? How can someone whose art is hung in galleries all over the world, and who spent time with other famous artists and writers, like James Baldwin, be lost to most of us, especially in his home town? Well, I suppose one could argue there are many reasons. One being that many people don't know many artists names or works at all, but we all know Picasso's name, and personally I think Beauford Delaney's works are more beautiful! I know art is a mater of opinion, but take a look for yourself. Then ask, why don't we know his name? Let's be honest, a large reason we don't know his name is because he was African American.
I spent two years helping make sure this opera came to life, but what was wonderful was the community of Knoxville had a festival in honor of Beauford and his brother Joseph, called The Delaney Project. The project was led by the passionate and fearless leader, Sylvia Peters. The Knoxville Art Museum spent years collecting Beauford's works from all over the world to create an amazing exhibition. The University of Tennessee held a symposium, and the Knoxville history museum created a historical exhibition of his family's life.
"Beauford's mother was born a slave in Virginia."
Let that sink in.
Also in February, I saw the movie Just Mercy, which left me distraught. How could it be that in Alabama they are wrongly accusing men of crimes and putting them on death row. After seeing this movie I said, "I need to become a lawyer." It left me feeling hopeless and powerless. What could I do to help stop the injustice?
After hearing story after story of men being killed and imprisoned, and the horrible news of George Floyd's death, I again wondered how I could do anything to help. On Wednesday morning I repeated that I was going to have to become a lawyer. There's an inherent longing inside me to make things right, to help those who need help, and to stand up to bullies. One of my original intentions with Marble City Opera was to be able to bring music and life to stories that could be connected to social justice.
I've been attending a lot of online Opera sessions about making art and opera that is for everyone, and that is more diverse. In that moment of sadness and feelings of loss, I said, "this is what we need an opera about." I began brainstorming out loud and within five minutes had decided on an opera built on monodramas of individual stories of Black American men who had been murdered without cause. I knew instantly who should write the libretto, and wrote to my friend and Marble City Opera colleague, Brandon Gibson. He is a fantastic writer and knows first hand what it is to be black in America. Despite having never written a libretto he agreed almost instantly, and by that afternoon we had a list of composers, and had made an inquiry with one.
Within 24 hours, Brandon had outlines for four characters, and I had two pages of conceptual ideas for the opera. Since it has just been five days since the idea was born I won't divulge all of the brainstorming here, but what I will say is that this opera is being created in a way that it can be performed all over the world. From the smallest and lowest budgets to the largest! It will be powerful in its most simplistic form as well as in its largest, and it will be able to reach people wherever they are! I am so excited to announce our new opera, "I can't breathe." I look forward to sharing more about it as it progresses.
Next week, I will finish up 20th century operas that we have produced, and will be moving into 21st century opera, which includes several premieres. I hope you will continue to join me on Monday's for what I hope is an interesting insight to new opera in America and what we've done at Marble City Opera!
May this week be better than last, and may we all live to breathe another day.