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  • Wagnerian Dreams, Grandiose Visions:Lawrence Freeman's Voodoo at the Miller Theater at Columbia University
  • Kira Thurman (bio)

Lolo, Janinah Burnett
Mando, SteveWallace
Cleota, JoAnna Marie Ford
Fojo, Barry L. Robinson
Chloe, Crystal Charles
Ephraham, DarianWorrell
Zeke, James R. Hopkins, III
Adele, Kamaran AlexisMadison
Lookout, Clayton G.Williams

The Morningside Opera Company, Harlem Opera Theater, and the Harlem Chamber Players; Gregory Hopkins, Conductor

Shortly before his death in 1954, African American opera composer Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869–1954) wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt. He had big plans for an all-black opera company in Harlem that would perform works by African American composers. Only the best performers would do: Marian Anderson, Camilla Williams, Muriel Rahn, Todd Duncan, Lawrence Winters, and Katherine Dunham were to receive invitations to perform. Freeman's company would need its own opera house, and he proposed a new space that comprised an entire city block in Manhattan, complete with 2,000 parking spaces and its own subway station to connect to New York City's existent mass transit system. Would the former First Lady be willing to fund such a venture?1

Lawrence Freeman always had grandiose visions. A composer of over twenty operas—eleven of them "grand operas," the other nine he called "music-dramas"2—Freeman lived with the fierce conviction that his operatic works were just as grand in every sense of the word as those by the composers he called "the great [End Page 226] European masters."3 One of his grandest operatic endeavors was Voodoo (1928), which received a musical and theatrical reawakening in June 2015 via a concert performance by the Morningside Opera Company, Harlem Opera Theater, and the Harlem Chamber Players at Columbia University's Miller Theatre. Rich, suspenseful, and daring in its subject matter and musical material, Voodoo encapsulates the bold ambitions Freeman had throughout his life.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1869, Freeman resolved to become a composer at the age of eighteen when he heard a performance of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser. Following this musical epiphany he began writing operas and debuted two of them—Epthalia and The Martyr—at the Denver Deutsches Theater while he was living in the city in the early 1890s. It was his time studying with German-American composer and conductor Johann Heinrich Beck (1856–1924), however, that transformed Freeman's career. Returning from Denver to Cleveland in 1893, Freeman trained with Beck (the first conductor of what would eventually become the Cleveland Orchestra) and became immersed in an array of opera composers, including, of course, Wagner. Accordingly, Beck publicly praised Freeman for having "some of the important qualities of character that made Wagner great. His [Freeman's] compositions are wonderfully big in conception, the music faithfully portraying the sentiment of the words."4 Perhaps because of this association with Wagner in print, Freeman was dubbed the "Colored Wagner," a title he proudly held throughout his career.

And Freeman's operas were Wagnerian in terms of scope and scale. Like Wagner, he wrote all of his own libretti (except for that of Uzziah), used so-called leitmotifs, and created rich orchestral textures. Indeed, Freeman's operas required large orchestras, which is why, he complained to Mrs. Roosevelt, he had such difficulties finding an opera house willing to take on his work. Musicians compared his opera Octoroon to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and following in the footsteps of his German namesake, Freeman had hoped to compose a tetralogy—his very own "Ring Cycle," so to speak.5

Yet the difference between Freeman and Wagner accounts for the particular hardships Freeman experienced throughout his career. Freeman was black. Moreover, his operas all dared to explore and celebrate black experiences. His own "Ring Cycle," for example, was to be based on African myths instead of Nordic ones. His blackness also explains why he had such difficulties finding an audience for his work: although he submitted his scores frequently to the Metropolitan Opera House for review, he was regularly rebuffed.6 The notion that African Americans could compose art music—considered Eurocentrically white—was controversial in the 1920s when it was not dismissed outright. Striving to enter the upper echelons of...


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