Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

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…I’ve been working on the Opera In Color concert.

This past week the Music Collection at the Library Of Congress confirmed that they would be facilitating a display at the upcoming Juneteenth Community Celebration.

This event is FREE, and is being sponsored by the Washington National Opera on Saturday, 19th June at Fort Dupont, in the National Park in Anacostia, in collaboration with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative.

Picnickers are encouraged to come at noon; there will be musical performances while folks gnosh, then beginning at 3PM there will be a concert presentation of opera selections, some from works written by African American composers, sung by members of the chorus from WNO’s Porgy & Bess production.

About a month ago I had reached out to Jeffrey Mumford and the William Grant Still foundation, asking to be able to use works by these composers in the concert. The response to my request, from Jeffrey and Judith Anne Still, was generous and supportive, and I soon found myself with various pieces to use in the concert mix. In addition there will be pieces by Anthony Davis and Clarence Cameron White.

The through line I have been able to create came together with some wonderful serendipity.

Clarence Cameron White (1880 – 1960) was a virtuoso violinist and composer. He studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio, and also taught at the Washington Conservatory of Music from 1903 – 1907.

In wanting to highlight a composer with DC roots, I noticed that not only is Jeffrey Mumford a native of Washington, DC, but that he has also been a composer in residence at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.

In looking at the opportunities these two African American composers had, through the ‘Juneteenth ‘doorway, is to appreciate what ramifications emancipation immediately produced. Were it not for that Act, Clarence Cameron White, or any other number of eminent African American composers and musicians, would not have had the right or opportunity, to formal musical education in a conservatory, college, or school of any kind.

An even more significant ‘closing of the circle’ came to light in researching the piece I intended for inclusion in the Opera In Color concert.

Clarence Cameron White’s opera, Ouanga, is based on the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a slave who led a revolution and became the first Emperor of Haiti. The opera was written in 1932, and was first performed, in concert version, in the same year.

Though Ouanga had several presentations in subsequent years, the presentation, on May 27, 1956 was one of the more historic -as the opera was performed by the National Negro Opera Company, and presented on the stages of the old Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.

An incredible footnote to this presentation date, is that it is just a little over one year after Marian Anderson’s historic debut on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera (January 7, 1955).

In having this realization, I felt it astonishing to note that there is very little sense of general awareness of this historical continuity -nor is there much exclamation about the fact of this significant opportunity, for a black company of singers, in a period of endemic institutional racism.

The National Negro Opera Company, originated by Mary Cardwell Dawson, started in Pittsburgh, but by the late 1940’s had moved, along with Mrs. Dawson and her husband, to residence in Washington, DC, where the company presented many seasons of operatic fare for the District’s population.

While consulting the Library of Congress score of Ouanga, I also did some research in the collection the LOC houses on the National Negro Opera Company, and found written correspondence between Clarence Cameron White and Mrs. Dawson, with specific regard to the specific opportunity in 1956, and presenting the work on the stage of the old Met.

The letters are very moving, and illuminate Clarence Cameron White’s struggle for platform; they also reflect the composer’s steely determination to assure Ouanga’s proper place in history, as well as mark the musical heritage of “Negroes” in the art form of opera.

Reading through these letters of correspondence is a vivid lesson of racial history and advancement, and gives dimension to the vision and reach of these two African Americans who were driven by a passion for an art form, allied with an unbending belief that the art form was not only relevant to blacks, but must be accessible to blacks, with the intention of nurturing others to aspire to create works in, and for, the future.

Several of these letters, and other collateral material, will be part of the artifact display presented by the Library Of Congress at the concert site on June 19th.

General promotion will be up on the National Park Service site shortly.

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