Houston — There was a time when an opera house could only guarantee a crowd with a new opera. Revivals happened but audiences usually demanded something new. How things have changed. Nowadays opera companies can only guarantee a crowd when they pull out an old warhorse. New ones happen, but audiences usually demand something old.
Few modern opera companies have commissioned as many world premieres as the Houston Grand Opera, which on March 5 and 6, hosted its 68th — and, it turns out, was the final show of the 2019-2020 season because the rest of the season was canceled in the COVID-19 crisis. Marian’s Song is a chamber opera, presented in the Wortham Center’s smaller and more intimate Cullen Theater, about another who led the way: mezzo-soprano/contralto Marian Anderson.
The opera was composed by Damien Sneed on a libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the poet laureate emeritus of Houston and conducted by Benjamin Manis. The title role was strikingly sung by soprano Zoie Reams, a graduate of the HGO’s Studio who recently appeared in the HGO’s production of West Side Story. She is a pure mezzo, without Anderson’s hint of a contralto, but she sang in Anderson’s famously low range without effort or resorting to a more raucous chest voice. She certainly displayed Anderson’s quiet elegance for every second of the opera.
Marian’s Song is a combination of a narration (spoken text and poetry) and a variety of musical styles, including jazz, pop, classical and a hint of modernist sounds. It simultaneously takes place in the present and in Anderson’s own time period. Sneed used a small chamber orchestra in the pit, which went a long way towards creating the close and intimate nature of the entire production. Manis was marvelous; he conducted with precision and such a minimal frame that we were not really aware of his presence.
The spoken part was delivered slam-style by Tina B in the modern-day role of Neveah. Billy King, her erstwhile collaborative pianist who followed her everywhere, was played with quiet stature and grace by Nicholas Newton. Cynthia Clayton took on two roles, Mrs. Roberts and Eleanor Roosevelt. Two other roles were assayed by Geoffrey Peterson.
The minimal set consisted of four medium-high pillars, a grand piano upstage and a projection screen that formed the back wall. There was also a small chorus. Projections set the time and place as well as other appropriate scenes. While most of the cast were in modern day dress, the main characters were in period costumes. Of course, Reams wore Anderson’s trademark fur coat for the National Mall recreation.
The over-amplified sound was the only problem. Tina B was unintelligible most of the time. Unfortunately, the supertitles were only used for the singing. Using them continuously would have greatly helped with the comprehension of what surely was excellent poetry.
Anderson possessed a glorious and perfectly produced voice and would have ascended to the 20th century diadem operatic stardom from the moment she first started to sing in public. The fact that she was African American meant that she was not even allowed in the audience, let alone the stage.
But she was determined and unstoppable in her pursuit of the career she deserved, yet cordial to all involved in every constantly occurring refusal. Her combination of immense talent and constant graciousness, combined with the help of some prominent people, eventually led to her appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, albeit near the end of her career and in her late 50’s. She sang the major role of the sorceress Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo en maschera.
Even Opera News was wowed: "The role of the sorceress is something that depends a lot on the charisma of the performer, the ability to suggest a world beyond what you are seeing in front of you. And that's what Marian Anderson did every time she walked onstage," wrote the magazine’s editor-in-chief, F. Paul Driscoll.
She was the first black performer at the Met. An exponentially growing trickle of others soon followed her 1955 groundbreaking achievement. An operatic tribute is long overdue.
T his marvelous little gem of a chamber opera follows her beginnings and her dogged and unwavering path through the concert halls of Europe, which were much more open at the time, up to The Big Moment. After being refused another New York City concert hall and at the personal involvement of another female force of nature, First Lady Elenore Roosevelt herself, she sang the highly appropriate spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" followed by a rousing rendition of “America (My Country ‘tis of Thee)” on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial. The tightly packed audience on the National Mall gave her an overwhelming ovation. You can hear a scratchy recording of that historic moment here.
Marian’s Song deserved a longer run. Here’s hoping it will have a future on other opera stages.