Black Opera Meets Its Moment

Among his many performances, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. played legendary singer Paul Robeson in The Black Rep’s spring 2015 production of “Robeson.” (photo by Stewart Goldstein / courtesy of The Black Rep, St. Louis)

Propelled By KC Talent, the Art Form is Getting Attention After Decades of Neglect

When the Lyric Opera of Kansas City announced local chorus auditions for “Porgy and Bess” in spring of 2020, the call advertised a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join leading African American singers on stage.”

For many, “Porgy and Bess” is the American opera. It’s also the most prominent (and controversial) example of Black opera. Despite featuring an all-Black cast, the creative team, George and Ira Gershwin and novelist DuBose Heyward, were all white men. The opera itself has had a fascinating history throughout its 80-plus years: casts demanding integrated theaters, multiple world tours, the first American performance in the Soviet Union, star after star after star in its ranks.

While yes, this production was to have been the Lyric’s first presentation of “Porgy and Bess” in its 63-year history and the first local production ever, when safety precautions necessitated the cancellation of the production, was that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity just . . . gone?

Unfortunately, opportunities for Black artists to perform on the opera stage, playing Black characters or otherwise, have been historically limited. The early barriers of segregation and the ongoing effects of systemic racism continue to disrupt access to the art form.

“In the turn of the century and forward, people had to find ways to fulfill their art, but only within the confines of Jim Crow and segregation and all the laws that were in place, spoken and unspoken, legal and illegal,” said soprano Roberta Gumbel.

Roberta Gumbel wrote the libretto and sang the role of Mother in a recent production of “dwb (driving while Black)” by composer Susan Kander. (Four/Ten Media, LLC)

Gumbel, born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, made her opera debut at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 1984. Her career took her to New York City and all over the world (including productions of “Porgy and Bess”), before she settled back in Kansas City, where she now teaches at the University of Kansas.

“Opera is one of the few (places) where you do play an ethnicity that is not your own . . . unless you are white,” said Gumbel. “You had ‘Treemonisha’ and you had ‘Porgy and Bess’ and there wasn’t a whole lot else out there, so you were rarely getting to play an African American if you chose to do this art form. You had to reconcile yourself to that fact, early on.”

But just what is Black opera?

Opera, from Latin, means “work.” From about the 17th century and on, “opera” became the term for musical dramas that combined all the art forms: music, theater, poetry, painting. It thrived during the 18th and 19th centuries, and while it’s no longer the popular entertainment of the masses, opera has been a part of Kansas City’s cultural fabric since at least 1860, when the muddied streets of Cowtown solidified into a bustling economic center.

About that same time, Black opera singers started to gain national and international attention, shaping the foundations of Black opera. For the sake of this article, Black opera is the Black singers who battle the color barriers, the stories of Black people who shape our communities, and the Black creators who transform the combination of language, music and drama to tell their own stories.

“You could do anything and stage it with Black performers, or do a concert to spotlight Black singers, or do a Gesamtkunstwerk with all Black participants,” said bass-baritone Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr., founder of the Black Musical Arts Community Choir. A scholar in Black art music, he is the former assistant director of education at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and currently teaches at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.

But it’s not just about artistic opportunities.

Building a Future

“I feel like arts organizations should be taking a clear stance regarding Black Lives Matter and the racial inequities evident in the country,” said McNichols. McNichols grew up in St. Louis, where his first operatic role was in Adolphus Hailstork’s “Joshua’s Boots,” with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Presenting work that represents over a quarter of our local population seems like a start to addressing these inequities.

When national organizations are slow to change, smaller, nimbler, regional organizations may have the opportunity to offer more adventurous performances, develop community buy-in, contribute to artist development, and create educational opportunities. But it won’t happen without intention.

Of course, Kansas City’s cultural heritage is not grounded in opera. The city flourished with jazz, invented by Black performers. African American artists also thrived in the visual arts, in poetry, in theater, in musical theater, with organizations including The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, KC MeltingPot Theatre, The Light in the Other Room group of Black KC artists and the African American Artists Collective, preserving and expanding the legacy of African American artists.

Despite the region’s lack of a tradition in Black opera, the modest history includes decades of talented singers, a handful of operas with Black stories and characters, and perennial celebrations featuring Black performers and composers, within the African American community and beyond.

Kansas City has a few significant local connections to “Porgy and Bess,” too. Star of stage and screen Etta Moten Barnett, who studied at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, became known for her portrayal of Bess in the 1942 revival. Eva Jessye, who also attended Western University, directed the original choir for “Porgy and Bess” (as well as many subsequent choirs). Additionally, she directed the choir for KC-native Virgil Thomson’s 1934 “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which also demands an all-Black cast. (“Four Saints,” despite its local connection, has never been performed in Kansas City in its entirety.)

Though Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” from 1911, is the only perennially performed Black opera from a Black composer, it’s only been performed locally once, in a semi-staged concert version presented and co-produced by Johnson County Community College in 2004.

Recent activities suggest, however, that this sparse history doesn’t necessarily mean a bleak future for Black operas and singers.

Expanding Opportunities

Grand opera has grand traditional roles, like Aida and Othello, originally played by white performers but increasingly cast with Black artists, just as opera evolves into more colorblind casting, creating more opportunities for Black singers.

Black composers were writing grand opera at least as early as 1891, with Harry Lawrence Freeman’s “Epthalia,” but those works are rarely heard. When local audiences are treated to productions of “Carmen” or “La Bohème” every five years or so, what are we not making room for?

For every performance of “Porgy and Bess,” an unknowable quantity of Black operas languishes in manuscript form, like John Duncan’s “Gideon and Eliza,” stored in the UMKC LaBudde Special Collections.

For every performance of “Porgy and Bess,” an unknowable quantity of Black operas languishes in manuscript form, like John Duncan’s “Gideon and Eliza,” stored in the UMKC LaBudde Special Collections. (LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries)

“There is so much fantastic music, fantastic stories, not just from the Black community, (but) from diverse cultures, if we can break out of that mindset,” said McNichols.

For Black Musical Arts’ inaugural event, McNichols brought composer Anthony Davis to Kansas City to work with the ensemble and performed arias from Davis’ 1985 opera, “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” Bringing attention to the work of African Americans and creating performance opportunities for Black singers are the primary reasons McNichols started Black Musical Arts.

The most recent Black opera — with a Black story, Black creator/performer — associated with Kansas City, though, is “dwb (driving while Black).” The chamber work is a collaboration between Gumbel, who wrote the libretto and originated the role of Mother; Susan Kander, composer; and the cello-percussion duo New Morse Code. Though Kander is white, the work deals explicitly with a Black experience.

The opera follows a Black mother as her son grows up, from infancy to learning to drive, scenes interspersed with news reports of racial injustice and other stories, many pulled from Gumbel’s own, or her family’s, experience.

“Singers rarely get to tell their own story,” said Gumbel.

When they performed the work in Kansas City, they presented it twice: for a primarily white audience at the 1900 Building and for a primarily Black audience at St. James United Methodist Church.

“In the 1900 Building, I felt that I was teaching; I was explaining,” said Gumbel. “At St. James Methodist, I was not educating, I was not explaining, I was simply sharing . . . I was commiserating.”

Panel discussions followed each performance. At 1900 Building, a musicologist led a conversation about the work’s development. At St. James, it was leaders in the community talking about the issues of racial injustice raised in the work. “It wasn’t about the music at all when we were done; it was about the wound, the wounds that were exposed.”

Recently, “dwb” made its virtual premiere in a high-quality film version featuring the original ensemble, directed by Chip Miller, produced by a partnership between the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City and Opera Omaha.

In April, the opera moves on to the next stage. Arlington, Virginia’s Urban Arias is filming a new production with soprano Karen Slack, available in a digital release.

“I’m excited that someone else will be putting their own stamp on it and telling their own story through the words I’ve written,” said Gumbel.

And so, the cultural heritage of Kansas City and Black opera expands.

There’s work to do in opera, in racial equity and in ourselves. But that’s exactly what opera and every work of art is about: doing the work so artists can reach their highest aspirations, to tell the past and future stories of how we have come to be in this place, at this time.

To learn more about Black Musical Arts, contact Robert McNichols, Jr. at bmacommunitychoir@gmail.com.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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