Cher Public

That sly come-hither stare

Harry Lawrence Freeman’s Voodoo (“A Negro Grand Opera,” according to the manuscript score), begun sometime before 1914, was completed and first heard on radio in May, 1928, then staged on Broadway later that year—seven years before Porgy and Bess, please note. We do not know if Gershwin saw it, but it’s likely enough. However, influence was slight in either direction: Freeman had other models and was not so fixated on popular music of the day.  

Voodoo vanished until last Friday and Saturday, when it was given its first hearings since ’28, two semi-staged (and very well attended) performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at Columbia’s Miller Theater, a joint production of Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players. The opera is a pleasant surprise rather than a revelation.

Freeman (1869-1954), something of a star in Harlem’s cultural Renaissance between the world wars, is an obscure figure in our history today. In part, this is because of his ambitious resolve to compose grand opera—no obvious route to fame or fortune for any American musician before the mid-century and few enough since. Inspired at eighteen by a performance of Tannhäuser in his native Cleveland, Freeman studied the method with local German music teachers and went on to create some two dozen stage works, operas or various sorts of operetta, usually set to his own texts. (Six were drawn from the fantastic adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard).

On the evidence of Voodoo, Freeman was a devout believer in through-composed, Wagnerian art works rather than “number” opera. Contemporary jazz and dance styles are an incident, a spice, but not the primary viande. Spirituals (orchestrated or a cappella) are sung for leitmotivic atmosphere, the way tunes of the Revolution turn up in Andrea Chenier—and because Freeman knew he could get the singers to put them across. At Miller Theater on Saturday, these were sumptuously performed.

Clearly a driven man, Freeman founded opera companies and music schools in New York and other places, focusing, as was then necessary for a black opera composer, on black musicians—he died at 85, a year before Marian Anderson became the first black singer on the Met stage. He had moved to Harlem in 1908 to join the culture of the “Harlem Renaissance,” married a likely soprano who could then specialize in his work, and put his music before the public on every possible occasion.

That’s an expensive hobby—one opera, The Martyr, reached Carnegie Hall in 1947 in full Egyptian costume. Freeman’s music, almost none of it published or recorded, never became very well known. His handwritten scores went in boxes to Columbia, where Morningside Opera’s Annie Holt recognized their possibilities.

For a point of comparison, let us take Charles Ives, five years younger, who died the same year. Ives’s symphonies and songs were ignored for most of his life, but (a wealthy man) he made a point of getting his work published and sending it to musicians. Too, he never made the quixotic error of writing opera. Another contrast is Freeman’s friend Scott Joplin, whom he assisted (about the time he was composing Voodoo) in the preparation of Treemonisha.

Joplin had none of Freeman’s training or organizational skill, at the nuts and bolts of opera, but he was a successful tunesmith. Though Treemonisha is embarrassingly naïve, sections of it are great fun in performance; the tunes linger in the ear. Porgy and Bess surpassed both works in no small part because Gershwin took his libretto from a successful play, as Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini usually had. The structure was already there.

The structure of Voodoo is too basic by half. Lolo is a maiden thwarted in love; the tenor, Mando, prefers her friend, Cleota. She turns to the comforts of religion, in this case a malicious form of Voodoo that gives rise to the terrific orchestral effects of Act III. It is not clear if Lolo has been a priestess all the time—in which case Mando and Cleota have been unwary, to say the least—or if, as a newbie, Lolo takes to the cult like an otter to the bayous.

She casts spells, conjures spirits, sells charms and slays her enemies with a word and a look. Christianity fights back with song but proves ineffective without shotgun backup. Skimping on backstory is, unfortunately, a feature of the tale; all the characters are slightly characterized and only Lolo comes to life with music.

Even bigger news than the rediscovery of the score was the Lolo of Janinah Burnett, possessor of a warm, beautiful lirico-spinto soprano of commanding depth and luster. If her soft singing matches the rest (Freeman seldom calls for it), she’s a natural Aida or Leonora di Vargas. Youtube videos from competitions a couple of years back give no hint of her power. Too, she is handsome and charismatic on stage, and drew laughs with ironic, half-spoken recitative asides.

There are few indications Freeman knew much about genuine Vodoun—he borrowed Lolo’s spells from Shakespeare’s Witches, and other characters use tropes from Midsummer Night’s Dream in an attempt to render them poetical. Instead they come across as mighty pedantic for field hands in Louisiana just after the Civil War:

“When I beheld you in the cotton field,
Beneath the rays of the welt’ring sun,
I longed to enfold you, but dared not yield even then, beloved one.
But now all things are changed, it seems, and my heart is at rest;
My nights shall be fraught with blissful dreams,
The lamenting days are past.”

Or, alternatively, for local color:

“Moon am shinin’, over de lagoon,
Oh, ma lady lub doan’ yo’ heah me croon?
Da whippoorwill am a-wailing in da gloamin’
Da banjo’s moanin’ fo’ its massa am a-roamin’
Fireflies a-dancin’ in da silber light;
Katydids an’ crickets a-singin’ thru da night….”

Eugène Scribe would have had a dandy time kicking this material into proper shape: love thwarted and festering into magic, religious conflict, local color turned to theatrical purpose, dance and choral interludes. But Freeman did not have the knack; he was a composer, not a man of the theater.

On the other principal grounds for success as an operatic occasion, the singing and the orchestration, Voodoo proved an intriguing surprise. The fabric of the opera recalls the Verismo works being composed during the decades of its composition: There are few distinct “arias” or duets as such, and the flow is uninterrupted. Solos of exposition intervene in background choruses. Melodies do not fold neatly upon themselves but rise stepwise to predictable climaxes. We do not learn who these people are; they remain thin and vague. He’s a tenor so he’s in love with the wrong soprano (because it’s not a comic opera). She’s a contralto, so she represents the solid pillar of faith.

While fair to sopranos, contraltos and basses, Freeman appears to have disliked tenors; like Richard Strauss, he cuts them little slack. They go up and they stay up, banging on the C’s and C-sharps until they break. Steve Wallace, who sang Mando, the Radames role, has a fine, full tone but was sweating blood on the top notes. James R. Hopkins III, who drew the ungrateful role of Zeke, a man with a crush on Lolo (who only has eyes for Mando), has a pleasant light tenor that also crumbled at the precipice. Freeman can be a cruel taskmaster.

Crystal Charles’s calm, earth-motherly mezzo aroused considerable enthusiasm as Lolo’s devoutly Christian mother, Chloe. JoAnna Marie Ford produced a few ravishing notes in the thankless role of Cleota, Lolo’s rival. Bass Darian Worrell was effective as Lolo’s worried father, Ephraham. Barry L. Robinson contributed the ideal, thrillingly doom-laden deep baritone for the sinister spells and invocations of Fojo, later transmogrified into the Snake God for a chorus that had changed into Mardi Gras masks. (Everett Suttle did, and perhaps overdid, the makeup, hair and costumes.)

An orchestra of thirty, led by Gregory Hopkins, director of Harlem Opera Theater, gave us some notion of the score’s surprising virtues and distinct flaws, and made us wonder what it would sound like with a full-sized ensemble. This group was short on strings and heavy on brass, but individual touches made their effect. Melodies from a banjo (sometimes as continuo, sometimes as local color) were echoed by harp, as if caught by a breeze in the willows. Muted brasses gave a bluesy melancholy to the spirituals. Touches of castanets and xylophone were precise and appealing.

Whether because of the libretto, or Freeman’s choice, or Hopkins’s style, the pace of the first two acts was slow. There are exciting situations, but the characters do not confront; they observe. All this changed after the intermission: Act III was a great Voodoo ritual, a tour de force for Lolo (Burnett was in her element, commanding and preening), with violins played col legno to indicate rushing winds, and jagged harmonies lurching from the rest of the orchestra as if Freeman had simply been holding his wickedest ideas in check, lulling us to lower our guard. It was not “modern,” as 1928 would understand the term, but it was very advanced for the era he first began to compose this opera. There was a distinct tang to the score.

The semi-staging was directed by Melissa Crespo. In lieu of sets, there were Caite Hevner Kemp’s colorful projections of bucolic Louisiana with undisruptive animations (a steamboat gliding down the river, a magical sunset) and archival footage of cakewalks and “buck dances” at appropriate points in the show.

Photos: ©Regina Fleming