Still’s Troubled Island Given Historic Production in Chicago
—Dominique-René de Lerma
We know that opera in Italy began at the start of the seventeenth century when late-Renaissance scholars and musicians realized that Greek drama involved singing, but the fragments of ancient notation could not be deciphered. So those interested in the rebirth of this art elected to write new music to qualify the emotions intended in retelling the Greek stories. Soon after, Monteverdi’s musical psychological depiction raised the declamatory text so that a rich history of musical theater was born. The entertainment became so attractive that the French, Germans, and British began adopting musical styles that were harmonious with their own languages. But the increased complexity of productions—acting, singing, sets, instrumentalists—became so expensive that only a few courts or united magnates could support the productions. Nonetheless, the public was captivated, especially in Italy, where it was no longer an entertainment only for the wealthy. In the United States, with a government that showed no interest in the arts until the 1960s, opera became largely a social event for those of financial means.
There had been efforts by African Americans to participate in opera, perhaps not fully realizing that atavistic urge for ritual, music, and theatrics that had permeated their ancestral sociology. No aspect of music in Africa is regarded as a cultural adornment; it is that essential element that validates the rites of passage. While an interest in opera was part of the desire of African Americans to “elevate” the culture, that motivation differed from many of those who subscribed to the then new Metropolitan Opera. Their efforts were almost consistently frustrated for want of financial support and in the past they realized their talents through minstrelsy, with an aria or ensemble thrown in at the finale of a show, taken for the most part from the current Italian repertoire.
There were composers who also desired to be part of the world of opera. The number of operas by black Americans is enormous and is constantly growing, but only one has ever been produced by a non-black company. That total is increased when we properly include contemporary ballad operas—those works in more popular musical styles that have become termed “musicals.” (We do not yet speak of those operas from Nigeria and Ghana that have been created without any reference to the European tradition.)
The composition of an opera takes a lot of time, and that investment yields little or no financial gain. Nor is there any guarantee that the work might be staged, hoping that the work might then become a success. Mozart, who loved opera from his pre-teen years, was more than hesitant to consider this investment if he were not reasonably assured of a production. In contrast, however, William Grant Still’s passionate urge to write operas was so great that it won an assurance of production. “All of my life, my aim has been opera.” That interest must have had origins in the old one-sided RCA 78rpm recordings collected by his step-father: arias sung by Caruso, Galli-Curci, and those others who had sung Italian opera in the early days of recordings.
In 1936 Still engaged Langston Hughes to write the libretto for Troubled Island, an opera about the liberation of Haiti from European colonialism. Hughes left the next year to cover the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, leaving a portion of the text to be provided by Still’s wife, Verna Arvey, already a skilled writer. The composition was finished in 1939 and the premiere was set for the New York City Center premiere in 1945, to be conducted by Leopold Stokowski (whose extensive works for civil rights have yet to be told and to whom the opera was dedicated). The plans were enthusiastically supported by New York’s opera-loving mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and an equally activist Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President. But Stokowski resigned in 1945 and left New York for a position with the Hollywood Bowl, thus delaying the production. When conductor Laszlo Halasz took up the production plans in 1946, the Board of Directors stated that funds were not available for this work, even though they were able to mount other works. Plans for a 1948 premiere were again delayed, but finally, in 1949, Troubled Island was staged on the last day of March, the first of April, and the first of May (the third performance was conducted by Julius Rudel). The work was a success, with audiences demanding twenty-two curtain calls. Even so, the newspaper coverage was negative and plans for future performances were cancelled.
The premiere performances featured a mixed cast and included several major singers of the time. The role of Dessalines was initiated by Robert Weede, with the second and third performances provided by Lawrence Winters (who gave up hopes of an American career and moved to Hamburg three years later). The role of Papaloi was created by Robert McFerrin Sr., six years before he became the first black male with the Metropolitan Opera and one year before the birth of his son, who has made a career of his own. Francis Bible, who sang the role of the Mango Vendor, and Marie Powers, who sang the role of Azelia, were already well established artists. The two choreographers were Jean Léon Destiné and George Balanchine. The composer was pleased with the casting, not minding that some had to adjust their complexion.
Still was so convinced that Troubled Island would be properly recognized that he had dreams of a new home in La Jolla. But this was not to be. Prior to its production, a group of New York music critics conspired to give unsupportive reviews of the opera’s premiere. Prior to the first performance, critic Howard Taubman told Still, “Billy, because I’m your friend I think I should tell you this—the critics have had a meeting to decide what to do about your opera. They think the colored boy [Still was then 54!] has gone far enough, and they have voted to pan your opera.” It was not enough that the opera was a great success with the audiences—the cabal of critics still wrote unflatteringly about the work. The sordid details are provided in Just Tell the Story: Troubled Island by Still’s daughter Judith Anne Still and Lisa M. Headlee, in which they provide highly significant information on the entire post-Harlem Renaissance scene.1
Scenes from Troubled Island were excerpted for a performance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on March 31, 2009, commemorating to the day the premiere of the work sixty years earlier. A complete performance of Troubled Island, however, was never heard again until October 19, 2013, when the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago presented a single sold-out performance in the Paul Robeson Theatre of the South Shore Cultural Center. Prefatory remarks were offered by Lesly Condé, consul general of Haiti.
The Chicago production had been planned to be produced using a full orchestra, but sufficient funding was not available; the orchestra was replaced by two pianos, performed more than satisfactorily by Peter Slavin and Pedro Yanez. Kirk Walker, who sang the bass role of Dessalines, is a winner in the regional competition of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and made his operatic debut in 2000. He is now a member of the Lyric Opera’s American Artists program. Contralto Gwendolyn Brown, who sang the role of Azelia, was also a regional winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions, and was a successful contestant with the Caruso International Voice Competition, the New York Oratorio Society, and the National Opera Association. Tenor Antonio Watts sang the role of Stenio and Cornelius V. Johnson III, artistic director of the South Shore Opera Company and a music professor in the City Colleges of Chicago, sang the role of Vuval.
Music critic Andrew Patner wrote an extensive review for the Chicago Sun-Times (October 16, 2013):
Symbolism alone could have made this a special night. Performed at the South Shore Cultural Center in the old home of the South Shore Country Club, founded in the early 1900s as a Whites-and Protestants-only lakefront redoubt, in the Center’s Paul Robeson Theatre by an all-Black cast before a standing-room-only, largely African-American crowd, the event would have carried bite even if it did not concern the Haitian Revolution—complete with the sounds of African drums and the moves of the native dancers.
To mark its fifth anniversary, the small but marvellously ambitious South Shore Opera Company rightly chose to focus on singers and staging and to have conductor Leslie B. Dunner lead a rich two-piano adaptation of Still’s wide-ranging score by performer-composer Peter Slavin (partnered by the equally accomplished Pedro Yanez). With a cast of 25, including a superb chorus prepared by Charles Thomas Hayes, director Amy Hutchinson, designers Shanna Philipson (effectively period and Caribbean production) and Julian Pike (lights) and eight dancers added for Kia Smith’s strong choreography, South Shore made a handsome and convincing case for a production with full orchestra. Bravo to South Shore Opera Company for rescuing the collaborative work of these men [Still and Hughes], largely lost to history, and preparing the way for its wider rediscovery.
Patner’s unrestrained enthusiasm is a far cry from the reports of that cabal of covert racists in 1949. “Composer Still’s music, sometimes lusciously scored, sometimes naively melodic, often had more prettiness than power. In all, Troubled Island had more of the soufflé of operetta than the soup bone of opera” [Time magazine]. “One was never sure one was hearing a first-rate performance of an inferior work or a second-rate performance of a good one” [John Briggs, in the New York Post]. “The result is a mixture of styles signifying talent and a feel for opera but achieving little more than a suggestion of it” [Miles Kastendieck in the New York Journal-American and Christian Science Monitor]. The journalists were true to their pre-performance pledge, if not to the musical obligation of their profession.
In the future are plans for a British production by Black Swan Productions. A series of “workshop performances” were offered in London at Gatehouse October 31—November 2, only days after the Chicago production.
The only recordings, not professionally produced, are from the New York performance. These are only available from William Grant Still Music (809 W. Riordan Road, Suite 100, Box 109, Flagstaff, AZ 86001-0810; phone (928) 526-9355, fax (928) 526-0321; email firstname.lastname@example.org). The two-cassette version (WSGTI-3001) is $14.95; the CD version (WGSTI-3001CD) is $21.00.
- Judith Anne Still and Lisa M. Headlee. Just Tell the Story: Troubled Island. Flagstaff, Arizona: The Master-Player Library. 2006.