Reviving Voodoo, the opera

Singers Steve Wallace and JoAnna Ford (both left) rehearsing Voodoo while Alberta Grannum Zuber (right), who sang in a Lawrence Freeman opera in 1947, shares her memories of the composer with the cast.
Singers Steve Wallace and JoAnna Ford (both left) rehearsing Voodoo while Alberta Grannum Zuber (right), who sang in a Lawrence Freeman opera in 1947, shares her memories of the composer with the cast.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

New York - He was described as a black Wagner in the late 19th century, went on to write more than 20 operas and formed the Negro Grand Opera Company, which he once conducted at Carnegie Hall.

But after pioneering African-American composer H. Lawrence Freeman died in 1954, he fell into obscurity, with his works unpublished, unrecorded and, for decades, unperformed.

Until now. His opera Voodoo, about a love triangle on a plantation in post-Civil War Louisiana, will be given its first performances since 1928 on Friday and Saturday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University in New York.

The revival offers a glimpse of a nearly forgotten chapter of African-American operatic achievement and another chance for Freeman to claim the place in musical history that he had always sought against long odds.

Voodoo might have remained an unheard and unperformed historical footnote had his family not placed his papers and scores in Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2007. The collection interested scholars, who were drawn to his accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, and fascinated Ms Annie Holt, a graduate student who catalogued it.

A year later, she helped to start a small opera company of her own, Morningside Opera, with the vague idea of some day staging one of Freeman's forgotten operas.

That is how the strains of Voodoo, in which passages of Wagnerian grandeur alternate with spirituals and a cakewalk, came to be heard again for the first time in decades last week in practice rooms at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, where Morningside Opera and its partners in the production, Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players, ran through the work.

The rehearsal drew 88-year-old Alberta Grannum Zuber, who joined the Freeman family when one of her sisters married the composer's son, Valdo.

Zuber sang a small role in Freeman's Egyptian-theme opera The Martyr when he conducted it at Carnegie in 1947.

As she listened to the young singers bring the long-dormant Voodoo back to life, she said she did not think that Freeman ever doubted that he would be remembered for posterity. "I think he felt it in his bones," she said.

Freeman was one of several African-American composers drawn to opera in the early 20th century despite the many obstacles posed by race.

Scott Joplin, a friend of Freeman's, wrote the opera Treemonisha, which was not staged until the 1970s, more than a half century after his death.

A milestone came in 1949, when New York City Opera staged William Grant Still's opera Troubled Island, with libretto by Langston Hughes.

Columbia is holding a conference about Freeman in conjunction with the upcoming performances of Voodoo.

Professor La Vinia Delois Jennings at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who has been editing Freeman's unpublished monograph, The Negro In Music And Drama, is scheduled to give the keynote address.

Rehearsing the opera has posed challenges. With no published scores available, Raphael Fusco, who rehearsed the singers from the piano, relied on a photocopy of Freeman's original handwritten piano score.

At one point, when Fusco stopped the members of the chorus and asked the singers to enunciate the consonants more clearly, Zuber offered a memory of how the composer used to give his singers warm-up exercises to help them with their diction.

"He would have us sing 'cool, fa-fa, cool- fa-fa' up the scale," she recalled. "It opens up the throat."

A roomful of singers, several generations younger than her, listened and went on with the rehearsal.

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Reviving Voodoo, the opera'. Subscribe