Unearthed In A Library, 'Voodoo' Opera Rises Again : Deceptive Cadence The Harlem Renaissance opera Voodoo has not been performed since 1928. A Columbia University researcher rediscovered the score, and now the Harlem Opera Theater hosts two performances.
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Unearthed In A Library, 'Voodoo' Opera Rises Again

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Unearthed In A Library, 'Voodoo' Opera Rises Again

Unearthed In A Library, 'Voodoo' Opera Rises Again

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This weekend in New York, audiences will hear an Opera that hasn't been performed since 1928. It's by an African-American composer from the Harlem Renaissance, and it's called "Voodoo." The opera's presenters hope that these performances begin a renaissance for the late composer. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: About eight years ago, as a grad student, Annie Holt was working in Columbia University's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library when she was assigned to catalog the work of Harry Lawrence Freeman, a largely forgotten Harlem-based composer from the early twentieth century.

ANNIE HOLT: And it was fabulous. I had the honor of going through, you know, all the cardboard boxes that came right from his family's house and unearthing everything. And I, for myself, discovered how amazing his story was and how amazing his music is, in my opinion. And I've been really trying to get one of his operas produced since that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "VOODOO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing).

LUNDEN: Holt is now artistic director of Morningside Opera, and she's collaborated with Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem chamber players to present two concert performances of Freeman's "Voodoo." Holt says Freeman wrote both the music and the libretto for the opera.

HOLT: "Voodoo" is set on a Louisiana plantation in the Reconstruction Period. And for me, that was a really interesting topic, especially looking at Freeman's historical moment during the Harlem Renaissance and the idea of Africans-Americans reflecting upon racial identity in the 75 years after the Civil War.

LUNDEN: Freeman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, shortly after the Civil War. He began to write operas when, at the age of 18, he heard German composer Richard Wagner's Tannhauser. Freeman moved to Harlem in 1908, established both a music school and the Negro Grand Opera Company and was a friend and colleague of Scott Joplin. He wrote over 20 operas in his lifetime. Harlem Opera Theater's artistic director, Gregory Hopkins, says while he hears Wagner's influence in Freeman's music, he hears a lot of other influences too.

GREGORY HOPKINS: Certainly you hear the colloquial music of the time. There's a cakewalk. There's a buck dance. There's even a voodoo dance. And you hear the interpolation of spirituals which were so important to the development of the entire artistic tapestry of the Renaissance.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "VOODOO")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing).

LUNDEN: The use of spirituals in the context of voodoo is very much plot driven. The story, which is a classic love triangle between two women and one man, hinges on a spurned lover's turning her back on her faith to use the magical powers of voodoo. She conjures a giant python and a magic tree and even kills her rival who is then revived miraculously by holy water, says director Melissa Crespo.

MELISSA CRESPO: It's a battle of Christianity, and it's a battle of, you know, the voodoo magic at play and, you know, which one is going to win.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "VOODOO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing).

CRESPO: It's a big, giant story. Everyone has a lot of feelings (laughter), and they're feeling their feelings all over the stage. But that's the beauty of opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "VOODOO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing).

LUNDEN: When "Voodoo" premiered at the Palm Garden on Broadway in 1928, it got some good notices in the African-American press. But the New York Times called it naive, and it was never performed again. It was very much of its time, including language audiences now find racist. Although Harry Lawrence Freeman may have been known during the Harlem Renaissance, his music was never published. And Morningside Opera's Annie Holt says...

HOLT: He had trouble getting things produced in his lifetime, and after his death, it was even more difficult for his son, Valdo, who was acting as his general manager to continue with that work.

LUNDEN: Freeman died in 1954, and many of his operas have never been performed. In that, he shares something in common with his friend Scott Joplin, whose opera "Treemonisha" was first produced 55 years after the composer's death. Conductor Gregory Hopkins says he and his collaborators hope that "Voodoo" will get a full production.

HOPKINS: I don't think the work or the composer will be obscure for too long.

LUNDEN: Audiences will have a chance to make up their own minds this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "VOODOO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing).

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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