As Told By: History, Race, and Justice on the Opera Stage

Black composers and musicians have been around for centuries, but their work is just now becoming part of the canon. While opera companies and symphony orchestras began to plan works by marginalized composers in their seasons in the last few years, one group that stands out in doing this work for almost 30 years is the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP). BMOP was founded in 1996 by conductor Gil Rose and in tandem with Odyssey Opera, they are devoted to performing and recording forgotten or overlooked pieces in the hopes of bringing them back into the standard repertoire. 

In June 2022, BMOP will begin a 5-year project to perform and record operas by black composers. This project entitled As Told By: History, Race, and Justice on the Opera Stage, begins with Anthony Davis’ X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), a piece which will also premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2023. Future performances and recordings will include: Nkeiru Okoye’s Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom (2023), Troubled Island (1949) by William Grant Still, known as “The Dean of Black Composers,” with a libretto by Langston Hughes, Ulysses Kay’s 1991 magnum opus Frederick Douglass, and the world premiere of a newly commissioned opera by Jonathan Bailey Holland entitled The Bridge, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s years in Boston as well as the crossing of the bridge to Selma. The project also includes multiple outreach programs where BMOP & Odyssey Opera will have a chance to collaborate with underserved communities and community organizations across the Boston area. 

Gil Rose answered some questions in an email interview with Gregory Moomjy about the As Told By project as well representation in opera.

 

Could you tell me a little bit about your background and the mission of BMOP and Odyssey Opera?

When I first founded BMOP, I realized there was an entire 150-year period of repertoire that was at risk of being forgotten. These composers, particularly of orchestral music, needed a champion in our current era. With Odyssey Opera, it was a similar concept—the history of opera stretches so far and wide, yet most companies produce the same 20 operas season after season. I wanted to expand on the traditional repertoire.

Can you describe the community engagement programs that will go hand-in-hand with the performances and recordings included in As Told By?

We’re lucky to have “Castle of Our Skins,” a Boston-based concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating black artistry through music, partnering with us to create flagship programs to accompany the operas of As Told By. We’ve conceived of three different elements—deep engagement with local middle and high school students around the creation of companion artworks; broad engagement with schools throughout Boston through the recordings that will be created as a part of this initiative; and a series of pre-performance discussions for adults. There are so many potential ideas to explore—from the historical figures centered in these works, to the musical and dramatic choices of the composers, to the history of these works and their relative obscurity despite their power and artistry. We assembled an Advisory Council, made up of Black leaders from communities and sectors across greater Boston, to help us pinpoint the programs that will have maximum impact.

 

Are there works by other marginalized composers that you will perform and record after this project?

Absolutely—if we don’t, we’re not meeting our mission to perform the underperformed, and to engage audiences and artists in a contemporary dialogue. We’ll continue to seek out opportunities to commission new works; beyond the commission that will close As Told By [Jonathan Bailey Holland’s The Bridge], we are co-commissioning a new work by Shelley Washington as part of New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices initiative. The more opportunities we and other orchestras have to commission or premiere works, the better. At the same time, a large part of BMOP has been resurrecting, performing, and recording works that had a premiere without many subsequent performances. For example, in April 2023 we’ll return to Lei Liang’s A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams, a BMOP commission that has not been performed in the US since its world premiere in 2018. And we’ll keep recording, since recording the work adds it to the permanent record of classical music, shifting the canon one album at a time.

 

How has equity, diversity, and inclusion developed since you first founded BMOP in 1996?

Inclusion is at the heart of BMOP’s mission, as our programming seeks to correct imbalanced representation in today’s classical canon. There’s an imbalance certainly in terms of era, but by performing more modern and contemporary orchestral music we can uplift composers with diverse gender identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and musical styles and influences. In some ways, we’re a step ahead of our colleagues in the orchestra world, who are increasingly asking themselves whose voices are represented in their concert halls; but we certainly can’t take our foot off the gas. We’ll always lead with our programming, but we need to think beyond–to the communities we want to engage through our music, from artists to audiences and beyond. One of the particularly exciting things about As Told By is it offers an opportunity to correct inequitable representation of the stories told through classical music, as well as the composers who get to tell the stories we hear. 

 

How did you choose which pieces to record?

The BMOP/sound and Odyssey Opera record labels were always in the back of my mind as part of preserving the repertoire, so creating these recordings was always going to be an important part of this initiative. Each of these five operas is important from an artistic perspective as well as for their connections to Boston—whether that is the story, the subjects’, or the composers’ relationships to the area. Having permanent access to a seminal work in operatic history or a new work from a living composer furthers the missions of both companies.

 

What was the process of preparing these works for performance and recording like?

Our various recording projects often drive our concert programming, so the rehearsals and the concerts themselves also function as preparation for the recordings. In addition to creating these recordings as a vital artistic and historical endeavor, we’re excited to see the new and continued life these works receive in other live productions across the country.

 

How did this process compare to researching Henry VIIIThe Queen of Sheba, or even The Chronicle of Nine?

For one, three of the five composers are living, which means we will get to work directly with them to bring their works to life. With Henry VIII and The Queen of Sheba, we were reconstructing works that were 150 years old, so there was some educated guesswork in realizing the operas. With all 20th- and 21st-century composers in this project, we have access to more information and resources to fulfill each artist’s intentions.

Gregory Moomjy

Gregory Moomjy is a New York City-based journalist who writes about opera. He is a graduate of Columbia University with a Master of Science in Journalism, and a graduate of Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in Musicology. He is a contributor for the Indie Opera Podcast, additionally, he has written many reviews and commentary on opera for a variety of publications including New Jersey Monthly, Salon, PC Gamer, and Mexico’s Pro Ópera, and many others.