I went to a performance by the Heartbeat Opera on 12/11/20. This is the company that I saw perform *Lady M* in May and an anniversary special in September. The performance was called *Breathing Free.* It was split into six nights, each showing a film and culminating in a live panel discussion. I chose the evening with the theme “To Decolonize Opera.”
The film opened with soprano Kelly Griffin, tenor Curtis Bannister, and baritone Derrell Acon singing “Euch werde Lohn” from Beethoven’s *Fidelio.* The film showed footage of the singers singing (lip-synching to their own singing) in sites around New York City, interspersed with film of three dancers, also performing around the city. The performance was directed by Ethan Heard and the film was directed by Anaiis Cisco. They had a powerful vision and knew how to communicate it through this medium. Not your typical point-and-shoot opera film, which was a nice change.
Next was Bannister singing “Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” a song with music Harry T. Burleigh and words by Langston Hughes. Bannister was, for me, the breakout star of the performance. Handsome, hunky, compelling, and a real voice. He deserves to have to have a big career.
Griffin sang “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” from *Fidelio.* She went after the aria like a dog with a sock, and I mean that in the best possible way. This aria is wide-ranging and demanding for the voice and she was more than equal to the task. Another stellar performance. Let me mention here that the musical arrangements were by Daniel Schlosberg, and they were brilliant, they were essential to the quality and the specificity of the experience.
Bannister sang “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” from *Fidelio.* This was the moment when the performance really felt like it took on a greater purpose and tighter focus. Up to this point what was being communicated was a general sense of disillusionment and unhappiness. The character in the opera is a man who’s been unjustly imprisoned and the film showed Bannister in a dark cell communicating something more than generalities.
The aria was interrupted by a performance of “I would not tell you what I know” from *X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,* music by Anthony Davis on a libretto by Thulani Davis. It was performed by Acon, who was costumed to look like X. This aria was the thing I was most looking forward to hearing in the performance. *Fidelio* is done all the time, but how often do you get to hear Davis? Hopefully more often, now that he’s won the Pulitzer Prize… Acon sang the aria with fierce drama and authority.
When the Davis was over, we went back to the *Fidelio* tenor aria, picking it up where we had left it. Fascinating choice, and again, Bannister sang it and performed it gloriously.
Griffin sang the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” She sounded great - - she sang it with her own operatic voice but giving it the gospel inflections that made it feel authentic, and not like a classical singer slumming. She sang it a cappella, which gave it extra poignancy.
Next was the most powerful moment of the performance, a performance of the prisoner’s chorus from *Fidelio,* using footage from Heartbeat’s 2018 production of the opera, which was done live in the theater but broke away from the live performance at this point to show filmed footage of inmates from various prisons in the Midwest, singing the prisoner’s chorus. You won’t see that at the Met.
Acon sang “Song to the Dark Virgin,” music by Florence Price on a poem by Langston Hughes. I had heard this song for the first time a few weeks before, sung by Laquita Mitchell. What a beautiful song. The film ended with the three singers doing an a cappella arrangement (by Sean Mayes) of “There is a Balm in Gilead.” It was beautiful, but I would have liked more dynamic variety. It felt like the default was mezzo forte and louder. Why not have some truly quiet singing, some close-to-the-mic singing, since you’re working in a studio recording format?
The film was followed by a live panel discussion on the subject of decolonizing opera. The discussion was moderated by singer and artistic administrator Davóne Tines, who invited the panel to talk about their thoughts.
Alexa Smith of the Manhattan School of Music said that as an educator, she deals with the compartmentalization of music: classical, jazz, pop, which to her are somewhat arbitrary. Those boundaries were built by white people and they need to be questioned and challenged.
Opera singer Karen Slack sees the artistic directors and agents, the people in charge of the opera business, as being the colonizers, putting people in certain categories and keeping them in their boxes.
Naomi André (Professor at the University of Michigan and author of *Black Opera*) mentioned that opera started as an elite court entertainment in the 17th century. Yes, it became a politically charged populist entertainment in Italy in the 19thcentury, but she reminded us that the opera house was segregated not so long ago.
Darrell Acon (one of the singers in the film) said, “Are we trying to decolonize opera, or are we just trying to get white people to do better?” Wow. André quoted Audre Lorde: “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.”