Little-heard opera work by African-Americans in spotlight

Arias in Ebony, Opera Project Columbus' concert featuring the work of African-American opera composers, is the first of its kind on Ohio and ideal for presentation during Black History Month.

Artistic Director Dione Parker Bennett acknowledged the importance of recognizing and presenting work that is little-known and rarely performed, but added the importance is as much about the music as it is about the composers.

"This music is for the world, not just for African-American audiences," she told The Beat.

And so she has assembled a multicultural lineup of singers for Arias in Ebony, including herself along with fellow sopranos Kristen Kurivial, Coral Owdom and Karolyn Lee, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Redman, tenor Franklin Brewer and Samuel Hall, and baritones Robert Kerr and Stephen Butler.

Pianist and voice coach Byron Sean, who specializes in the works of African-American composers, will be featured.

"What has failed to come to the forefront is that there are African-American musicians that made and are making this kind of music," Bennett said.

"Some of the music will sound similar to traditional European opera, but with a 20th-century feel," she added.

While the music is not stylistically similar to forms more often associated with African-American music -- spirituals, jazz -- the work reflects "the voice of the African-American."

William Grant Still, often referred to as the dean of African-American composers, will have several works represented.

Still was not exclusively an opera composer, but created symphonic works as well. He was the first African-American to have his work performed by a leading symphony orchestra and leading opera company, and was the first to conduct an American orchestra.

Harry Lawrence Freeman was the first African-American to have an opera produced, and the first to lead his own company.

His Voodoo, from which this concert will draw, has been described as reminiscent of Liszt, Wagner, Puccini and Charlie Chaplin.

The concerts also will feature the work of Anthony Davis, a living composer and pianist, and Adolphus Hailstork, known for his wide variety of choral music.

The program will include spoken narration, solo arias, duets, choruses and dance as well.

"There is such a great body of opera music," Bennett said, "we just need to put it out there."