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New York Times: ‘Voodoo,’ Opera by the African-American Composer H. Lawrence Freeman, Is Revived

Public Humanities

June 22, 2015

Below is an article written by Michael Cooper of The New York Times in the Music section, published June 21, 2015. Click here to read the original. Photo credit: Musician rehearsal at Convent Avenue Baptist Church by James Estrin/The New York Times.

Voodoo,’ Opera by the African-American Composer H. Lawrence Freeman, Is Revived

He was described as a black Wagner in the late 19th century, went on to write more than 20 operas and formed the Negro Grand Opera Company, which he once conducted at Carnegie Hall. But after the pioneering African-American composer H. Lawrence Freeman died in 1954, he fell into obscurity, with his works unpublished, unrecorded and, for decades, unperformed.

Until now. Mr. Freeman’s opera “Voodoo,” about a love triangle on a plantation in post-Civil War Louisiana, will be given its first performances since 1928 on Friday and Saturday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. The revival offers a glimpse of a nearly forgotten chapter of African-American operatic achievement, and another chance for Mr. Freeman to claim the place in musical history he had always sought against long odds, lengthened by discrimination.

“Voodoo” might have remained an unheard and unperformed historical footnote had Mr. Freeman’s family not placed his papers and scores in Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2007. The collection interested scholars, who were drawn to his accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, and also came to fascinate Annie Holt, a graduate student who cataloged it. A year later she helped start a small opera company of her own, Morningside Opera, with the vague idea of someday mounting one of Mr. Freeman’s forgotten operas.

That is how the strains of “Voodoo,” in which passages of Wagnerian grandeur alternate with spirituals and a cakewalk, came to be heard again for the first time in decades last week in practice rooms at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, where Morningside Opera and its partners in the production, Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players, ran through the work.

The rehearsal drew Alberta Grannum Zuber, 88, who joined the Freeman family when one of her sisters married the composer’s son, Valdo. Ms. Zuber sang a small role in Mr. Freeman’s Egyptian-theme opera “The Martyr” when he conducted it at Carnegie in 1947. As she listened to the young singers bring the long-dormant “Voodoo” back to life, Ms. Zuber said that she did not think that Mr. Freeman ever doubted that he would be remembered for posterity.

“I think he felt it in his bones,” she said.

Mr. Freeman was one of several African-American composers drawn to opera in the early 20th century despite the many obstacles posed by race. Scott Joplin, a friend of Mr. Freeman’s, wrote the opera “Treemonisha,” which was not staged until the 1970s, more than a half-century after his death. A milestone came in 1949, when New York City Opera staged William Grant Still’s opera “Troubled Island,” with a libretto by Langston Hughes.

The successes and setbacks of Mr. Freeman are inventoried in his papers at Columbia. A typed marketing plan for “Voodoo,” when it was staged in 1928 at the Palm Garden on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, suggests: “Give away Hickey Horoscopes to children. Attach small Voodoo ads to each one.” An advertisement for “The Martyr” at Carnegie Hall calls it “An Original Grand Opera by H. Lawrence Freeman, the dean of American grand opera composers.” But there are also rejection letters from opera houses and music publishers.

One 1935 letter from Edward Johnson, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, advised Mr. Freeman that the Met had “carefully examined” his opera “The Octoroon” but that “to our regret, we do not see our way clear to accept this work.” (It was two decades later, in 1955, that the contralto Marian Anderson became the first black singer to perform at the Met.)

Columbia is holding a conference about Mr. Freeman in conjunction with the upcoming performances of “Voodoo.” La Vinia Delois Jennings, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who has been editing Mr. Freeman’s unpublished monograph, “The Negro in Music and Drama,” is scheduled to give the keynote address.

“This is a phenomenal story of a phenomenal life, but it’s also a very American story,” Dr. Jennings said. “And when you overlay the issue of race onto it, it shows you about trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but depending what color your feet are in those boots, how difficult it became at that point in time.”

Mr. Freeman was born in Cleveland in 1869, where his family had been free landholders since before the Civil War. He took to music as a child, and by the turn of the century he had written the music and librettos for several operas, which were performed in Chicago, Cleveland and Denver. He studied theory and composition with Johann Beck, who conducted major ensembles in Cleveland, and went on to teach music himself at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

In the early 20th century he moved to Harlem, where he continued to teach and compose. “Voodoo” was completed around 1914 and performed in 1928 — its mixture of traditionally operatic passages and spirituals, with a libretto sometimes in dialect, predating the first performance of “Porgy and Bess” in 1935. The 1928 premiere received mixed reviews. The New York Times described it as a “naïve mélange of varied styles.” The New York Sun called it “modern of moderns” and wrote, “Puzzled, the professors and pundits left early, shaking bald, domed heads.”

Rehearsing the opera has posed challenges. With no published scores available, Raphael Fusco, who rehearsed the singers from the piano, relied on a photocopy of Mr. Freeman’s original handwritten piano score. Downstairs, Gregory Hopkins, the artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, conducted the musicians of the Harlem Chamber Players, with a banjo player seated next to the harpist, and tried to help them make sense of their long-unplayed parts.

At one point, when Mr. Fusco stopped the members of the chorus and asked the singers to enunciate the consonants more clearly, Ms. Zuber offered a memory of how the composer used to give his singers warm-up exercises to help them with their diction.

“He would have us sing ‘cool, fa-fa, cool-fa-fa’ up the scale,” she recalled. “It opens up the throat.”

A roomful of singers, several generations younger than her, listened, and went on with the rehearsal.