Songs of Slavery In Operatic Form

Composer Walter Robinson brings gospel music and African-American history to classic opera

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AFRICAN-AMERICAN composer Walter Robinson could have easily ended up as another casualty on the streets of Philadelphia. Instead, as the son of working-class parents, the young Robinson was able to explore whatever the city offered.

He is grateful that at least one offering was the gospel music of his parents' Baptist church - a "seed planted in me when I was in the womb," he says - and one that grew during his career as a popular-music bass guitarist and recording artist.

But this is not a rags to riches story of an inner-city black kid breaking stereotypes. It is a story about a musician who joined together what on the surface seemed unlikely partners: the African-American slave experience and classical opera.

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Eight years ago, Mr. Robinson became a fellow at Harvard University's Du Bois Institute, an independent research facility that brings scholars together to pursue African and African-American themes. There Robinson began work on "Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done," an opera based on the life of Denmark Vesey. For Robinson, Vesey encompassed what he called the "dichotomy of the African-American hero."

"He [Vesey] was a devout Christian but had to reconcile the use of violence to regain his people's dignity. He was a prosperous and free African at a time and in a place when 70,000 of his brothers and sisters were enslaved," explains Robinson.

"Originally I had intended to write the opera about Harriet Tubman and the 'underground railroad.' But the contradictions faced by a black male brought another dimension to the story I wanted to tell."

If prosperous African-American males have to face a certain resentment by contemporary white society for their achievements today, Vesey faced enormous obstacles in the pre-Civil War South.

In 1822, slave Denmark Vesey bought the winning ticket in the Charleston, S.C., lottery. He won $1,600 and with $600 purchased his freedom. With the remainder, Vesey went on to build a successful carpentry business and a prosperous church for the growing congregation of both slaves and freemen. Fearing the unity of an autonomous black church, Charleston officials harassed the congregation and shut down the ministry.

The closing of the church became unbearable to Vesey. Torn between using the last of his money to purchase his wife's freedom or underwrite a rebellion, Vesey chose the liberation of his people.

With seven close conspirators, Vesey plotted an insurrection - but not the kind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might have envisioned with singing in the streets and a commitment to nonviolent persuasion. Vesey planned to raid weapons arsenals and seize power in Charleston.

Betrayed by a frightened slave, the rebellion quickly stalled. Vesey and 35 others were captured, swiftly tried in secrecy, and publicly hanged.

According to Robinson, "Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done" is a story about social, historical, and even musical contradictions.

"It is a story about the contradiction of a society being founded on human rights but built by slaves - about the contradiction of the Southern Christian church which espoused the teaching of Jesus, but tried to bend those teachings to ordain slavery."

Even the character of gospel music itself - both Robinson's and the earlier type - reflects these contradictions in harmonic form, in the dissonance and tension of chords and how they move and seek to resolve.

In the library of the Du Bois Institute, Robinson discusses what he calls the "American paradox" - the teaching of history.

"If you find any mention of the slave revolts in history books - and there were several - we see the African-American as a villain, a cunning murderer at worst or a selfish trickster in caricature. But look at George Washington. He is made a hero, father of the country, for leading a new nation into a war which was fundamentally a tax revolt against the British Empire."

Despite pointing out these discrepancies, bitterness is not part of Walter Robinson's repertoire. He is on no crusade other than to bring his music to the widest audience possible.

Robinson assembled his cast from rural and inner-city churches in Georgia, North Carolina, Chicago, New York, and Boston. Like a baseball scout before the player draft, Robinson keeps in touch with a string of contacts who listen for the right full-throated sound.

"These churches are the real living museum of African-American culture. There you'll find people who are not imitating a sound, but continuing a traditional way of singing passed on by the generations before them," says Robinson.

ROBINSON'S musical director for the last two years, Philip Woods, comes from three generations of black Baptist ministers in North Carolina. Says Mr. Woods: "From my experience in revivals throughout the South and as a piano player and choir director for more than 24 years, I can tell you that Walter's singers are steeped in that true gospel tradition - and there is no better practice hall than the black church.

"Although these performers may not be schooled at Juilliard or a conservatory, they possess a talent that in some ways goes beyond what classical training produces. They can bring to the work what is required - the ability to react to multiple harmonies. You see, in a way this music is alive," Woods says.

"Although the notes are written down and don't change, the music moves. And growing up with our church music, you come away with this second sense of movement. It can be learned but not necessarily taught."

During an impromptu rehearsal at Robinson's Cambridge apartment, Boston vocalists Rosalyn Stroman and Sandra Altamirano trade harmonies and pass Ms. Stroman's seven-week-old daughter back and forth between them. The infant coos in a gospel bliss.

It is the uniquely African-American gospel rhythm that powers "Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done." Audiences will not see a full orchestra or elaborate costuming as in the classical operas of Verdi or Mozart, but Robinson's work shares with classic opera a narrative flow and acted scenes.

"My message is meant to be simple and direct," he says. "If anything can capture the experience of slavery, it is the human voice, not violins."

"Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done" should by now have made Walter Robinson, if not rich, at least widely recognized. The opera has the fundamental ingredients of a Broadway multiyear run: musical strength, a true story, historical accuracy, tragedy, passion, death, and betrayal.

So why has he struggled with the production - even canceling a recent performance when the underwriting of his cast's travel expenses did not materialize?

Part of the reason, Robinson explains, is the way he chose to market the work. He intended first to bring the opera to the African-American community directly, to churches, meeting places, and local theaters. Several corporations have already sponsored staged readings and abbreviated performances.

"But remember that opera, storytelling with song, was appropriated away from the folk mode. Opera had its roots in the culture of everyday life and gradually ended in gilded halls as the domain of the owning class. I didn't want this to happen to 'Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done.' "

The songs of slavery ring this evening in a Cambridge apartment a short walk from Harvard Square, and for the time being at least, like the people whom the opera celebrates, the cast of "Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done" sings alone.

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