Composer William Grant Still was a student of the famous experimentalist Edgard Vares, an arranger for blues icon WC Handy and producer of Win permanently “Afro-American Symphony.” Thanks to his rich list of symphonic and chamber music, however, who died in 1978 at 83, was widely known as the pioneer “Dean” of Black American composers.
But his opera has struggled to gain a foothold in the repertoire. “Troubled Island” about the Haitian Revolution and its consequences, claimed a libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey. Additional songs by, A writer who married Still. It premiered at the New York City Opera in 1949, but continues to await another production. (A catchy, if scratchy, recording of the premiere can be purchased from here Still assets.)
Still’s one-act stunner “Highway 1, USA” premiered in 1963 has also been rare. But it will hit the headlines this weekend with the opening of a new staging directed by Ron Himes at the Opera Theater in St. Louis. (It runs there until 17 June.)
In its two scenes – which last less than an hour together – the filling-station owner Bob and his wife, Mary, deal with the gratitude and arrogance of Bob’s younger brother, Nate, a prodigal academic , Whose reading was written by the couple. The plot – its horrifying flights, echoed by Bob and Mary’s total devotion – increasingly deal with complex, compelling ideas about family expectation and duty.
Run by Leonard Slatkin, a veteran advocate of American music, and featuring a cast of rising stars, the St. Louis production is an early highlight of the opera’s fledgling retreat, as epistemically easy.
But this “highway” probably would not have happened without an epidemic. In a phone interview between rehearsals, Soprano Nicole Cabell Said that both he and baritone Will Liverman were originally scheduled to perform “Pori and Bess” in St. Louis this summer.
Although widely loved, “Porgy” – written by white artists – has long been Shaded works by black musicians; In this case the epidemic reversed its distinct dominance. “Pori,” Cabell said, “obviously a production that was huge.”
St. Louis felt that its contracted soprano and baritone could play the role of a married couple in Leeds Stills “Highway”. And Cabell credits the company with finding an way to move forward with an operative work of “cultural importance”.
Liverman said that, after 15 months away from performing with the orchestra, “it’s a special thing to get back to work and perform a piece by a black musician, especially after everything that has happened to Pandemic and George Floyd.” , And how we are changing our conversation about inclusiveness. “
Was still A fan of wagner From an early age, an affection that can be seen in the fluid way that he handles narrative shifts. Cabell said, “In my opinion, no one has Arius that really has a clear end.”
“I think if you sing Mary you have to stay on your toes,” she said. “Because she, of course, has struggled with a lot of struggles: her love for Bob, her skepticism over Nate, her desire to expose him. It makes a lot of mood-boggling.”
Tenor christian marc gibbs bb, Who plays the role of Nate, described the effect as “interactive”. Like other singers, he had no deep experience of Still’s work prior to this production.
“I heard about them during some of my studies,” Gibbs said. “I questioned while in school: ‘Oh, how come we don’t see any of those things?’ But then you get involved in your studies. “
Nate doesn’t have much stage time. He enters the mean in the second scene, and becomes merely mean. As the plot progresses to a twisted climax, the character’s inspirations are barely sketched.
“That leaves a lot to your imagination,” Gibbs said. “I can sing with my first line before I can come up with a great back story for this character.”
Himes, the director – who has moved the setting a bit in the 1960s – has his own perspective on Nate’s troubles: “He may have been the victim of some racial attacks while he was in school. He might have been some kind of trauma.” Is suffering from. “
Artists in St. Louis are enjoying a highly unusual opportunity at the opera. “I think there’s a special energy for them, being an all-black company,” Himes said. “It is very rare for all of them in this classical world to have a career so far.”
There have been some presentations or recordings of the work. in the 1970s, Columbia’s Black Composer Series One album contained excerpts from the opera. It took until 2005 for a full studio recording to be released, including St. Olaf Orchestra Under the leadership of Philip Brunel. (On that recording, Mary, Louise Toppin also directed a production at the University of Michigan in 2019.)
Gibbs said that he found himself remembering the music of other characters. “I walk around singing some of Bob’s tunes all the time,” he said. “I grew up listening to a little jazz and listening to blues and gospel. It has that spirit kind of feeling.”
This is the case, although a committed integrationist, nevertheless, did not want his work to be viewed only through a racial lens. Gibbs said, “In this opera, no caste is mentioned.” “This is another area where it is open. It can be done by many people. He wanted it to be done by different cultural groups.”
Conductor Slatkin said he put small touches – including “an occasional pulsing-tongue” – to cut the orchestration behind Nat’s music a bit more. He said some of the harmonies of the score reminded him of Kurt Weil, but the music has a clear identity of its own: “As I really get into it, I think there’s something new and catchy about it.”
“Still the voice – just historically, when he lived, what he did and what he achieved – needed to be heard,” Slatkin said.
St. Louis plans to film the exhibit for streaming work later this year. For Liverman, that document is important. “The same thing is with black composers in general,” he said. “I think the music is out there. It’s not performed well enough yet. You won’t get a million interpretations, like ‘Winterreise’ or something like that. A lot of them are hard to come by.”
But he feels that the power of the “highway” will speak for itself. “The show goes along fine,” he said. “It’s like an episode on a short film or show – and it works beautifully that way.”