Opera Memphis' 30 Days of Opera Presents MOVIN' UP IN THE WORLD
Opera Memphis' 30 Days of Opera returns September 1-30, 2018. This annual event features dozens of TOTALLY FREE opera performances across Memphis and the MidSouth, turning the opera house inside out and taking the music to you!
This year will include performances of Movin' Up in the World, an opera featured in last season's Midtown Opera Festival as a part of the McCleave Project, as well as the return of the Levitt Shell concert - back by popular demand-on Sept. 23. Follow Opera Memphis on Twitter and Facebook, and check out 30daysofopera.com for all the info.
In Movin' Up in the World it is the evening of April 3, 1968. Mister John, elevator operator at the Sears Crosstown Building, has just been promoted. As he trains his replacement, he remembers his father, whose example allowed him to become the man he is. This short opera was first staged by Opera Memphis as a part of the 2014 Ghosts of Crosstown performances at the newly renovated Sears Crosstown Building. It was brought back in the spring of 2018 as a featured piece in the Midtown Opera Festival, directed by Dennis Whitehead Darling and performed by Darren Stokes. Darling was the first recipient of the McCleave Project Fellowship and will return with Stokes to direct this piece for the 2018 30 Days of Opera.
The idea for the McCleave Project arose out of discussions taking place locally and nationally in the arts community. People of color represent a tiny fraction of the audience for so-called legacy arts organizations (like Opera Memphis), even in Memphis, a majority black city. Many factors have been identified as possible reasons for this issue - from the price tickets to a lack of viable public transit serving performance venues to dwindling music education in our public schools to people not feeling "fancy" enough to attend. "The conventional wisdom focuses on class and poverty as the root of opera's race issue, and - while ensuring people of all income levels have access to the arts is a high priority for us - this seems a shallow understanding of the problem," says Opera Memphis General Director Ned Canty. "In Memphis, we have a vibrant black middle and upper class who are not attending the opera either. Poverty doesn't explain that."
Supported by OPERA America's Innovation Grants and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, Opera Memphis is beginning a journey to the roots of opera's race problem with the goal of develop strategies to address and transcend them. The first phase, beginning this month, focuses on community conversations and data gathering that will determine the trajectory of the initiative moving forward. "It is clear that we can't solve this by convening meeting after meeting of the people already involved. We need to get out of our offices," says Canty. "We need to be brave enough to ask tough questions and seek honest feedback, whether or not we like the answers. That is what we want to do with the McCleave project."
The project could hardly have a better patron saint than Florence Cole Talbert McCleave. A Detroit native, McCleave was trailblazer from her early days. She was the first African American student to attend Los Angeles High School and the first woman of color to graduate from Chicago Musical College. In the interest of pursuing operatic training, she moved to Europe as a young woman, eventually giving critically acclaimed performances in Paris, London, and Rome. In 1927, she became the first black woman to sing the title role of Aida in Europe. Unfortunately, when she moved back to the United States, there were few options for people of color on the operatic stage, limiting her to recitals and recording. In 1930, she moved to Memphis with her husband and began teaching voice out of their home on Vance Street. At that time, the Metropolitan Opera gave touring performances around the country, performing in Memphis in a whites-only venue. Madame McCleave was determined that her community should have access to singers of the highest caliber, and she began bringing artists like Leontyne Price and George Shirley to sing at LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne Owen.)
"While the Met was off-limits, Madame McCleave spread a love of opera to generations of young black Memphians," says Canty. "We intend to honor her memory by engaging honestly and respectfully with the question of race on our stage and in our audience, a question that will determine the future of our art form more than any other."
Opera Memphis was founded in 1956 and has grown into a world-class opera company. Widely respected for its innovative approach to outreach and audience development, Opera Memphis has become a nationally recognized thought leader on the process of evolving to meet the needs of 21st century audiences. For more information on upcoming Opera Memphis performances, call 901-257-3100 or visit www.operamemphis.org.