Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players
A Harlem Renaissance Opera
by H. Lawrence Freeman
Directed by Melissa Crespo
Conducted by Gregory Hopkins
7:00 PM, Friday and Saturday June 26 & 27
Miller Theatre at Columbia University
2960 Broadway (at 116th Street)
New York, NY 10027
Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players will present Harry Lawrence Freeman’s opera Voodoo, in the first performance since its 1928 premiere. Two semi-staged concert performances will be presented with full orchestra, choir and 7 lead singers.
Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869 – 1954), who was friends with Scott Joplin, spent his early life largely in Cleveland, but in 1908 moved to Harlem; by 1920 he had established a music school, later known as the Freeman School of Music, and the Negro Grand Opera Company. He was well known in the Harlem community during his lifetime and gained some acceptance in mainstream classical music circles in the 1920s – 1940s. Freeman received the Harmon Award for significant achievement by an African-American in the field of arts and letters in 1930 (sharing the award with Adam Clayton Powell). In 1934 he was the composer and musical director of the pageant "O Sing a New Song," a prestigious event at the Chicago World's Fair which celebrated the African-American experience. The high-point of his career was probably the 1947 production of his opera The Martyr at Carnegie Hall. Dubbed “the colored Wagner” by contemporary journalists, Freeman considered himself a student of the German composer, but also incorporated American folk music and jazz into his compositions.
The opera Voodoo, completed in 1914 but not performed until 1928, is exemplary of Freeman’s compositional style. Set on a Louisiana plantation just after the Civil War, the opera centers on a classic love triangle between three former slaves, one of whom turns to voodoo and magic to entice her sweetheart and do away with her rival. The opera blends Western classical music with extended passages of period dance music, including a “Cake-Walk,” and incorporates re-settings of several African-American spirituals, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The opera was broadcast live on New York radio and was the first opera by an African-American composer to be presented on Broadway.
Even with his many achievements, including receiving the prestigious Harmon Award, Freeman’s work in largely unknown today and only a few pieces have been published. Twenty-one operas, as well as many of his other works, exist only in manuscript form, and reside in Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In order to raise awareness and promote new dialogue about his work, Morningside Opera is transcribing Voodoo from Freeman’s manuscript to create a usable musical score. Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players have joined forces to re-introduce Freeman’s work to a new generation through this concert production of Voodoo. Following the performances, the recording and score will be made available through Columbia University Libraries for future performances and research.
You may find Freeman's manuscripts and other documents at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.