Shadowlight - The making of a new opera

Shadowlight is the title of Marble City Opera's upcoming world premiere, opening in Knoxville, TN Feb 28th at the Beck Center! "Art, light, and friendship tell the story of celebrated African-American painter Beauford Delaney, who left the segregated South for the heady freedom of the Harlem Renaissance and Bohemian Paris. Famous singers, actors, writers, and artists adored him, Foremost among them his ‘spiritual son,’ writer James Baldwin, who credits his beloved mentor with teaching him how to live, learn, and see. This genial soul, frequently suicidal, was plagued by poverty and schizophrenic voices. Art became his lifeline, and he filled hundreds of bright canvases with joy and hope. Writer Henry Miller called them ‘canticles to the sun.’ Delaney’s journey out of darkness, ‘the misery,’ he called it, ‘of which the jewel of life is formed,’ is a splendid testament to the courage and resilience of a gifted man who found in the mystical marriage of color and shape the healing grace of love." - Emily Anderson, librettist.

Today I'm going to talk about how this project got started and how we are bringing the opera to life.

The Knoxville Museum of Art featured some of Beauford Delaney's art work in 2017 in an exhibition called Gathering Light which kicked off a community-wide initiative to honor Beauford Delaney. A member of the community and chair of The Delany Project, Sylvia Peters had the idea that this was an opportunity to bring all forms of the arts together, and that it would be neat to have an opera associated with the project. A mutual friend of ours, librettist, Emily Anderson suggested that they talk to me about making this happen.

I'm an impulsive person by nature and when I see a great opportunity I know it, and I leap! (Most of the time without thinking.) After a conversation with Emily about the project I was hooked. Emily was going to write the libretto, Sylvia was going to help fundraise, and I would find a composer to commission and produce the opera through Marble City Opera! That was just two years ago. I thought about who would be willing to do great work for me without a lot of, or let's face it, any guarantees up front. Someone who was influenced by jazz, art, and Paris. As I continued to think about the project and read about Beauford Delaney a name kept coming to my mind. (Because the only thing I actually do slowly, is think about the kind of artist I want to collaborate with). Larry Delinger had composed Amelia Lost and Talk to Me Like the Rain, which we produced in Marble City Opera's second season to award winning results, and his name kept coming to my mind. I knew he was the right person for the job, and thankfully I was able to convince him!

Emily got to work on the libretto almost immediately, and during the summer of 2017 we met up in Paris (casually) to discuss what she had written. After a few creative meetings of the minds we had a libretto, which I sent to Larry to ponder. We received the piano/vocal score this summer 2019, just before audition season. We knew that Brandon Gibson would be our Beauford Delaney before Larry even began his work composing, so that role was set out from the beginning to be a baritone. Larry decided early on what the other characters' voice types would be, but it wasn't until a few weeks before we held auditions that I knew how each part would sound and what requirements they would need to have.

In order to determine the best type of voice, (beyond just tenor, soprano, baritone), I sang through all of the roles. I wanted to have an understanding of where each characters' music sat in the voice, and how the "voices" roles worked together. For instance, the soprano part sits in the middle of the voice a lot of the time, but has a quick leap to a high C that is held for multiple beats. The tenor voice that sings along side the soprano often sits higher in the register while the soprano is in the middle. This meant to me that I needed to have a full lyric soprano with fullness and cut in the middle of her voice, so that she can be heard when singing with the other voices.

We had an amazing turn out of singers audition for our season, and we were able to cast the show. I e-mailed the, at the time, hand written score to the cast. I hired a copyist who has worked with Larry before to digitize the opera so that it is easier to read. (Amelia Lost by Larry Delinger is still in handwritten form) ;)

Larry consulted with me on the size of the orchestra and gave me two or three instrumentation options. I opted for the 11 player option, which includes 2 violins, viola, cello, bass, alto saxophone, bassoon, flute, oboe, piano, and percussion. I'm really excited about having a saxophone in an opera orchestration....oh, and did I mention the voices play the harmonica? I just received all the parts for the orchestration last weekend and sent them to the players I have contracted to play for the premiere.

What else goes into putting the opera on? Well, choosing a venue, directors, conductor, the cast that I mentioned, having a conceptual idea for the opera and how to stage it, video projection and design conversations, designing the costumes, props, staging the opera, hiring the stage managers and crew, organizing the volunteers, rallying the board, raising money, putting on a festive opening night reception to honor our sponsors, creating marketing, updating the website, setting up ticket sales, printing posters and postcards, creating rehearsal schedules, arranging housing and travel for artists, raising money...(I said that), creating and sending out contracts to the artists and venue, setting up an outreach performance, advertising, and setting up and going on interviews. Just to mention a few. Did I mention, raising money?

I am fortunate to have two part time staff members, an engaged board who loves the mission of Marble City Opera, and a community of supporters to back up this production financially. It is a lot of hard time consuming work, but it is an exciting, worth while project that I am grateful to be working on. Thank you to Links incorporated of Knoxville; Commissioner, Evelyn Gill and Knox County, TN; the Aslan Foundation, and all our donors who help make all of this work possible! We are excited and proud to be a part of The Delaney Project: Gathering Light!

We hope you'll attend our performances Feb 28th and 29th at the Beck Center at 7:30pm.

For more information on tickets visit:

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