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BWW Review: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' I DREAM A WORLD


A musical celebration of Juneteenth in Forest Park

BWW Review: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' I DREAM A WORLD

Juneteenth celebrations in Saint Louis got off to an early start on Tuesday, June 15. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, in collaboration with the Missouri Historical Society, presented a gorgeous cornucopia of music-and a bit of slam poetry-in an early-evening performance on the steps of our History Museum in Forest Park. It was called I Dream a World.

We have some major operatic talents visiting St. Louis right now. Will Liverman and Nicole Cabell stunned us recently in lead roles in Highway 1, U.S.A. Now they have turned their attention to curating I Dream a World-and it simply could not have been better.

It was a lovely, hot Midwestern beautiful summer evening. Hot, but comfortable. The program included a wide range of musical moods and modes remembering and reflecting the Black experience in America--from arias to gospel, from art songs to lovely jazz, from somber to strident to tranquil to shouting-the-Glory-of-the-Lord. It was beautifully balanced. All by Black composers, and all sung with such voices!

  • "To Sit and Dream", by Rosephanye Powell. Angel Riley, Tesia Kwarteng, Terrence Chin-Loy and Geoffrey Peterson sing this calm, melancholy multi-layered beauty. Piano notes fall like cool drops into a cool pool. They tumble down like a fountain. It's gorgeous. Stacked voices, rich, strange chords. "To sit and read and learn about the world."
  • "I Dream a World", by Damien Sneed, hints of Martin Luther King. Will Liverman's voice has such resonant power and drama. Damien Sneed himself accompanies and makes those simple, strong chords so vivid. "I dream a world where all will know sweet freedom's way."
  • In Joseph Joubert's "He'll Bring it to Pass" Will Liverman's rich, deep voice and the wonderful stride piano give us gospel at its best. Kevin Miller makes the piano become the deeply roaring lion or the soft and gentle lamb. This is a splendid shouting of faith.
  • "For You There is No Song", by Leslie Adams, features Rehanna Thelwell, whom we also remember from Highway 1, U.S.A. This song is slow and melancholy, and her smooth, strong voice is perfect for it. It rises to one sweet high note that is very like a soaring falcon.
  • Duke Ellington is represented by two of his sacred songs sung by Nicole Cabell:
    • "Praise God and Dance" is an operatic piece entreating us to make a joyful noise with trumpet, timbrel, organ, cymbal and all the other instruments. The piano impersonates the instruments, and at one point it sounds almost like a falling carillon. Ms. Cabell does a lovely vocalise passage that seems a very skylark.
    • "Heaven". Here we get Ellington at his sophisticated, jazzy best. Ms. Cabell steps from the opera stage to the cabaret with grace. A new touch of breathiness adds seduction to her lithe voice. In the jazz manner we're given a piano solo, where Kevin Miller could be Ellington himself.
  • In "Ride on King Jesus" Angel Riley brings us classic gospel. Her powerful soprano voice is filled with life and she flings those high notes to the skies.
  • Calvin Griffin sings "Give Me Jesus" in a wonderfully resonant baritone. This is a slow, simple song sung with great feeling. "In the morning when I rise give me Jesus. In the dark of midnight . . . , when I comes to die, . . . you may have all this world, but give me Jesus."
  • Will Liverman and our own Melody Wilson give us a lovely gospel medley: "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" and "Standin' in the Need of Prayer". It's simple and solemn, the voices twining together while the piano thunders below. The piano fades to a gentle (almost) final whisper; then Ms. Wilson sings a small hopeful "It's me."
  • "We Have Tomorrow", by Florence Price, is sung by Andrew René. It's a brief art song to which he brings a rich, full, splendidly confident baritone.
  • Another art song is "'Tis Sunset in the Garden", sung by soprano Lindsey Reynolds. She makes it easy, peaceful and pure. She makes us see "the earth drenched in colors red." This piece is by William Grant Still, who wrote Highway 1, U.S.A. It's from his very first opera, Troubled Island.
  • "What Makes a Man a Man?" is from Terance Blanchard's opera in jazz, Champion, which premiered at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2014. Markel Reed gives a commanding rendition of this meditative piece.
  • "Among the Fuchsias" is part of a song cycle by Harry Thacker Burley (who influenced Antonín Dvořák). It's a setting of a poem by "Lawrence Hope" (the pen-name of Adela Florence Nicolson).

    This is the one selection that made me puzzle about it's inclusion in the program. Now this poet, an Englishwoman married to a Colonel in the Raj, wrote several very popular volumes of verse--all drenched in the torrid romance and the exoticism of India and of Muslim Africa. Many were to "set girdled hearts racing within the safety of a parlor song." Your great-grandparents, I'm sure, courted to the "Kashmiri Song" ("Pale hands I loved beside the Shalamar . . .") But Burley, our composer, also set to music several love poems by James Weldon Johnson-leader of the NAACP, poet of the Harlem Renaissance, honored professor at NYU.

    Why choose a poem by a white English lady rather than one by such a hero of the cause we are celebrating on Juneteenth?

    We start in a minor key. A brief pentatonic flourish on the piano establishes a little orientalism. Then the lyric, beautifully sung by Christian Mark Gibbs. It's melancholy and dark, like most of Lawrence Hope. And, like so many, it's about forbidden love. "Tempt me not, for I am not strong." It ends with, "Ah, why is a thing so sweet so wrong/As thy temptation is?"

    Love across caste boundaries. But what castes? What cases? Is this about an Untouchable and a Rani? Or about Romeo and Juliet? Or Abie's Irish Rose? Or Loving v. West Virginia? Or Lawrence v. Texas? Tribes and castes have always forbidden intermarriage. They define strong, exclusive boundaries to their tribe. They diligently, rigidly, often brutally guard against "the wrong kind of love".

    Now, I've looked at James Weldon Johnson's love poems. Frankly, they're pretty much conventional mush. Maybe the selection of "Among the Fuchsias" was very pertinent indeed.

    Maybe we should stop defining tribes.
  • A string quartet from the Saint Louis Symphony makes a lovely change-of-pace in the evening. The players are Hannah Ji, Janet Carpenter, Andrew François and Alvin McCall. They do two movements from Florence Price's String Quartet No. 2, and they do them sweetly, perfectly. The "Andante Cantibile" is soothing, cooling, sweeping, mellow. A phrase or two bear hints of a spiritual.

    (As if summoned by the music, a soft breeze rises as the sun begins to set.)

    The "Juba: Allegro" is very jazzy. It brings the higher strings scampering above a low pizzicato and a contrary bass line. We have lyrical "licks". I smiled at hearing a cello reference to "Mama's little baby loves shortnin', shortnin'," which kept a bass beat for a while as the other instruments danced above it.
  • In the evening's "finale" the four principals from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis join the string quartet in the world premier of a commissioned work by Joshuah Brian Campbell. It's called "Briefly on the Nature and Expediency of Promises". It comments on the "pocketful of promises" that Blacks have long carried around. Promises aren't so cheap any more. They are "a currency I keep in case I would be free."
  • And, as in encore, we have the entire company joining to sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing", by J. R. and J. W. Johnson (arranged by Mr. Liverman). A joyous conclusion to the evening.
  • Other adornments to the evening were three spoken essays (or poetry?). Grace Rue defended Hip-Hop against its critics. Jordan Coley, Ibura DeHaan and Fatou Kane gave an almost music/almost dance overlayering of thougts on Black freedom. Kaylin McKoy urged the embracing of old hymns as racial memory.

Note to administrators: Again I would urge you to keep curtain speeches, introductions or parting speeches very short! One minute seems like at least five when the temperature is near 90º.

It was (despite those speeches) an overwhelmingly successful evening.

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