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New York Times: Long-Unheard Harlem Renaissance Opera Coming in June

Public Humanities

May 1, 2015
Yellow-tinted photograph of Harry Lawrence Freeman at a piano

Below is an article written by Michael Cooper of The New York Times in ArtsBeat, published May 1, 2015. Click here to see the original. Photo credit: H. Lawrence Freeman at the piano, circa 1921. Credit Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Long-Unheard Harlem Renaissance Opera Coming in June

“Voodoo,” a long-unheard opera by the pioneering African-American composer and Harlem Renaissance figure H. Lawrence Freeman, will return this June to New York, where it had its premiere in 1928, for a pair of concert performances that will be recorded.

The opera will be performed June 26 and 27 at the Miller Theater at Columbia University by Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players; Gregory Hopkins is to conduct. Columbia University is planning a conference in conjunction with the performances called “Restaging the Harlem Renaissance: New Views on the Performing Arts in Black Manhattan.”

The presenters said they believe that the revival of “Voodoo” will mark its first performances since 1928, when it had its premiere at the Palm Garden in New York more than a decade after it was composed. A review of that first production in The New York Times, which said it was performed by “an all-negro cast of thirty singers,” described the piece as combining themes from “spirituals, Southern melodies and jazz rhythms” with “Italian operatic forms.” In her book “American Opera,” Elise K. Kirk wrote that “Voodoo” was broadcast on a local radio station.

Freeman, who lived from 1869 through 1954, grew up in Cleveland, organized his own opera company in Denver, conducted, taught music, wrote criticism and became a well-known figure in Harlem. He conducted his opera “The Martyr” at Carnegie Hall in 1947 in a performance by the Negro Grand Opera Company. But most of his operas remain unpublished; his papers and scores are kept in Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

“We are very excited to be recording this concert live and to make this recording available through Columbia Libraries,” Annie Holt, the co-founder of Morningside Opera, said in a statement, adding that there is a plan to transcribe the score using digital music software to increase access to Freeman’s music and encourage future productions.

Mr. Hopkins, the artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, said that he hoped that the production would spark a dialogue about a number of issues. “Issues such as defining American opera, what kinds of communities can enjoy and produce opera, the role of opera in the Harlem Renaissance, and how might popular music – especially American forms like jazz and spirituals – influence opera,” he said in a statement.