Songs of Slavery In Operatic Form
Composer Walter Robinson brings gospel music and African-American history to classic opera
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."