In researching the opera composer Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) again I come to a troubling theme running through accounts of all these black composers. “First black composer to…” “the black Mozart” (referring to Chevalier de Saint-Georges/Joseph Bologne, who was born BEFORE Mozart). Freeman, quoted somewhere as being the “black Wagner” admittedly was inspired to begin composing his own music after attending a performance of Tannhäuser, but the focus on “firsts” is a stark reminder of all the years African-Americans have been kept out of institutions.
By the age of 22, Freeman had founded the Freeman Opera Company in Denver. His first opera, Epithalia, was performed at the Deutsches Theater there in 1891. That company went on to produce and stage two more of his operas, even taking them on the road to Chicago and Cleveland before the turn of the century. In 1894, Freeman moved to Cleveland, and began formal training in music theory with the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony. In 1900 the Cleveland Orchestra gave readings of excerpts from Freeman's operas.
Around 1908, he moved his family to Harlem where Scott Joplin asked for Freeman's help in revising his three-act opera, “Treemonisha" (saving that for a later post). In 1920, he opened the Salem School of Music on 133rd Street (later renamed Freeman School of Music), and founded the Negro Grand Opera Company, which produced several productions of his own works.
In a 1935 letter, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera claimed to have considered Freeman’s The Octoroon, but “to our regret, we do not see our way clear to accept this work.” The last couple of decades of his life were marked with frustration as he struggled to get any performances of his work. Almost all of his music was unpublished at the time of his death, and no recordings of his work have ever been released commercially. Twenty-one operas, as well as many of his other works, survive in manuscripts kept in a collection of his papers at Columbia University.
Voodoo is Freeman's best known work. Although Freeman finished composing the opera in 1914, it was not premiered until fourteen years later, on Broadway, with an all-black cast. It got its first revival in the production linked here in 2015, for which the New York Times review called it "lackluster"and "stolid and slow" and the Guardian (UK) called it "audacious and blazingly powerful" and "rare find". An interesting difference in perspective from two different countries' press.
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