Genealogies of Black Creativity

Allison Lewis and Nicholas Newton discuss the Black Opera Database with Juliana M. Pistorius

The Black Opera Database is an in-progress list of Black operas researched and maintained by BORN affiliates Allison Lewis, a Kansas University PhD student in American Studies, and Nicholas Newton, a bass-baritone with a growing career on the American stage. Here, Lewis and Newton share the background to the Black Opera Database with BORN working team member Juliana M. Pistorius.

JMP: What is the background to the Black Opera Database?

AL and NN: The Black Opera Database was started by Allison Lewis. After starting the project, she posted in the Black Opera Alliance (BOA) group that she was creating a list of Black operas. The Black Opera Alliance is a group that was created on facebook in the summer of 2020 that comprises over 800 Black artists and administrators. A few days later, Nicholas asked if he could join her and contribute. Nicholas has been leading research on this project since the school semester has begun for Allison who started earning her doctorate degree in September. This will continue to be a fluctuating relationship as our careers shift.

AL: The project was originally born from need. Post George Floyd, it was clear that the Black opera community was about to be in high demand for knowledge, resources, time, energy, etc. At my own institution, KU, there was a sudden interest that had previously not existed, and I was suddenly in a position where more people were willing to listen than had previously been interested. In my original post to the BOA facebook, I had gathered the few operas that I was familiar with and turned to BOA members to add and suggest additional operas. It was simply a resource for all of us in the community to add to at our leisure so when we were asked, we could point out the extensive list of Black composers who had contributed and created what is now American opera.

This was and continues to be a list that is not owned by us, but by the Black community for their use. This is a history and genealogy of Black creativity, ideology, and theory that could never belong to us and we have a responsibility to make this knowledge accessible to our people.

‘This is a history and genealogy of Black creativity, ideology, and theory that could never belong to us and we have a responsibility to make this knowledge accessible to our people.’

Allison Lewis

JMP: In the realm of traditional scholarship, your emphasis on the communal nature of this resource suggests an almost unheard-of negation of academic ownership. To me, it signals a novel way of thinking about intellectual property, namely, as something that cannot and should not be claimed by individuals, but should be shared with the communities within which this knowledge lives and circulates. It may be the only way to open the doors of academia to new voices, and to encourage scholarship on previously neglected topics. Many scholars (and practitioners) simply don’t have the resources (institutional, financial or time) to do the type of detective work you’ve performed here. And, to push the argument further, individual property is itself a colonial formation in many ways. So by making this database freely available, you’re resisting a colonial approach to knowledge-formation. Or am I reading too much into this?

AL and NN: Yes. Our focus, however, is on preserving the legacy and contributions of Black artists and providing a resource for our people and not solely on resisting colonialism and colonial practices.

JMP: It seems to me that this is very much a personal, rather than a professional, undertaking—based on your own interests, political priorities, and crucially, your sense of community. But likewise, it is also a profoundly scholarly project. In a way, this destabilizes the strict distinctions the academy tends to uphold between scholarship, activism, leisure, and community building. We have noticed similar trends in some of the work produced around BLM, decolonization, and especially Black feminism: work that acknowledges, explicitly, that the personal is not only political, but that it also constitutes a valid form of knowledge. That the stories we tell about ourselves and our communities, and the collaborations we initiate as forms of activism and support, also add up to legitimate epistemologies. I almost want to read it as an introduction to a new way of doing scholarship: one that substitutes strict formalism and authorial proprietorship for a looser idea of research-as-social-action. Not work, but play.

AL and NN: Yes, this project is definitely more personal than professional for us and we are interested in exploring new ways of doing scholarship.

JMP: How did you go about assembling the database? Did you encounter particular challenges?

AL and NN: We try to use as many sources as we need to fill in the information for every section listed for the individual works. Sometimes the number of sources is minimal because the composer has listed all the information we need on their websites, and other times several sources are needed. In addition to the sources listed, we have also searched through digital libraries, research databases, multiple dictionaries of music, and have contacted composers directly.

There have been quite a few challenges, but they seem to fit in two main categories. The first is finding the information in the first place. In the future, we would like to be vast with the information we provide for each opera, but some information is very difficult to find. For example, not every Black composer has a website and the composers that do don’t always list their entire catalog or detailed information for each piece. Information about some composers (especially older composers and deceased composers) isn’t widely available and takes some digging to find. This is in part due to the fact that Black composers have always been marginalized. There are certain composers that you won’t find any information about (the composers themselves or their works) if you only search on google. This is especially the case if they have the same or a similar name to someone who is alive and or well known today. Additionally, some composers don’t have music that is published or digitized, so you have to contact specific libraries to find more information.

The second category is choosing ‘what classifies as an opera’. Sources conflict on whether some pieces are musicals, operas, operetta, or just simply not an opera at all. Black composers have often drawn from a variety of genres to compose ‘classical works’ and we don’t feel that we should take the liberty of defining what genre these pieces are without finding out what the composers meant for them to be if possible. Moreover, because we are trying to include works from the entire diaspora, we have found that the performance practice of  ‘opera’ varies in definition depending on where it is being performed in the world. For example, we have found a lot of Nigerian and Ghanaian folk operas. Many of these works do not have singing at all and would be considered to be plays in the west.

Though we have encountered these challenges, we are determined to continue this work and find as much information as possible about the wealth of works that have been created by Black composers and about Black people.

JMP: You raise two important points here. I think one of the greatest challenges to research on Black opera is the fact that information is not readily available. People don’t know about certain composers or their works, and even if they do, it’s often almost impossible to track down primary sources such as scores, reception documents, and other archival material. As you yourselves mention, this neglect is a direct result of the systematic marginalization of Black and Indigenous peoples over centuries. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: composers and their works remain hidden because nobody pays attention to them, and nobody pays attention to them because they are hidden. Marginalization begets marginalization. Hopefully your database will begin to remedy this, as it offers a starting point from which to look for specific names among private and institutional collections, and to listen out for these names within oral transmission as well. Because of course, in many cases memory offers the only remedy to historical neglect.

On ‘what constitutes opera’: yes, it’s a tough one! Of course, the categorization or definition of opera has long been a matter of debate, even in Western opera studies (and composition). But it seems to me that once one adds the category of race, this question becomes even more fraught. Because the idea(l) of opera is so laden with historical exclusions and elitism—with ideas that ‘true opera’ had to look and sound a certain way, thereby to protect the racial and class integrity of the form (as Naomi André’s work on Porgy and Bess so convincingly shows). Have you encountered any composers who resisted the idea of having their works classified alongside a racial designation (in other words, having their works approached as ‘Black opera’ or ‘opera by a Black composer’, rather than just ‘opera’)?

AL and NN: Though we believe there are always people within marginalized groups who would rather be recognized as multi-dimensional artists than be solely defined by the most marginalized parts of their identities, we have not directly encountered composers who resisted the idea of having their works classified alongside a racial designation. At least not yet. We have, however, encountered composers who want to discuss ‘Black opera’ and what exactly it means for a work to be classified as such. For instance, one composer asked us ‘is it still a “Black opera” if the librettist is white and the composer is Black? Or vice versa?’. These are indeed interesting and important questions that can be discussed. However, it is impossible that everyone would agree with the same definitions or parameters of what constitutes a ‘Black opera’. A more important thing to note is that the construct of race has always been insufficient when it comes to encapsulating each person’s individual identity and continues to fall short when it comes to using it as a way to define works of art. This is another reason why we are able to be so expansive when we add works to the database. While the construct of race is a reality and can be useful in a few instances, we acknowledge that it often falls short on both a micro and macro level.

‘the construct of race has always been insufficient when it comes to encapsulating each person’s individual identity and continues to fall short when it comes to using it as a way to define works of art’

Allison Lewis and Nicholas Newton

JMP: The list is divided into six categories. What do these categorizations represent, and how (and why) did you decide on them?

AL and NN: The list started off with just operas, but as we researched more deeply, we realized that some of them don’t quite fit in just one category in terms of whether they were intended to be performed in concert or in the traditional staged operatic sense. We are also singers and understand that as classical musicians, our repertoire expands beyond the specific genre of opera and it is an attempt to open people up to more repertoire and categorize it based on subject so it can be more easily curated. The musical theater category was created by Allison because she was taking into consideration the interests of directors who would possibly want to explore theater works in addition to opera. Many music organizations that mainly perform opera have incorporated musical theater in their repertoire in recent years and I [Nicholas] think this category could be useful for those who would like to expand on this practice. I believe that the musical category is an important resource to introduce people to works they might not know about and it is also an effort to make a distinction on what genre the composer intended each performance work to be (though it is not always possible to be definite).

The categories that include a race distinction were created because a lot of people assume that when an opera is specifically about Black historical figures or the Black experience it was composed by a Black person, but that is often not the case (sometimes the librettist isn’t even Black). Though there is much debate about what exactly can be defined as a ‘Black opera’ when the composer and librettist aren’t both Black, we seek to focus mainly on Black composers and Black subject matter when choosing operas to add to the database. This database will be able to be used as a resource to measure how Black people have chosen to tell their stories compared to their non-Black counterparts, how often Black people have had opportunities to create works to tell their stories (and have these works performed how they were intended to be performed) compared to their non-Black counterparts, and at which institutions. 

JMP: You clearly take a capacious, or hospitable, approach to the idea of ‘opera’ (and, by extension, ‘Black opera’). Again, one could read this as a form of resistance to the strict disciplinary and generic boundaries the academy has upheld for so long. We’ve spoken about how to define ‘opera’, but I wonder—and this is a complex question, so feel free to push back against it—how you define ‘Black’ in this context? Do you take a similarly inclusive approach? I think here specifically of work by Indigenous composers, for instance.

AL and NN: When we are contacted by living composers who want to be added to our database, we send them our database submission form where they can choose which category their works fit into. Though we aren’t interested in defining the Blackness of living composers, we try to take into account deceased composers’ lineage and heritage before adding their works to our database. This is meticulous work because this information isn’t always widely available and the language concerning cultural, ethnic, and racial identity has changed and continues to change over time.

JMP: How did you deal with works that don’t quite ‘fit’ in any of the categories?

AL and NN: Because we don’t desire to define the categories of the pieces that don’t quite ‘fit’ in a specific category, we are either posting pieces with an asterisk or putting them in more than one category. For example, some composers name their pieces ‘Concert Operas’ or ‘Operatorios’ and because those titles encompass more than one category, we put them in both. This is a living and breathing document that will continue to change over time and we will adjust things as more information is uncovered about the pieces that are in it.

JMP: What kind of future do you envision for the list? How would you like it to be used, attributed, circulated, and/or expanded?

AL and NN: It is just a list at the moment, but the goal is to expand to a website/database where people can go to get more information on Black operas, composers, concerts, where to buy the music, etc. We would like it to be used as a resource to introduce Black singers to Black classical works  that can expand their repertoire and that they may more easily be able to connect with. We would also like it to be used as a resource to combat the marginalizing narrative that there are very few operas created by Black people; a narrative which undermines and erases Black people’s contributions to music. This narrative is a direct result of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that continues to negatively impact the world. That being said, we would also like this database to help further research on critical race theory that focuses on classical music and the classical music industry.  

The database should not be formally cited. We encourage people to cite the sources listed under each work. Should you wish to circulate, promote, or add to the list, get in touch with Allison Lewis and Nicholas Newton (available for non-commercial purposes only) at blackoperadatabase@gmail.com.

‘We would like [the Database] to be used as a resource to combat the marginalizing narrative that there are very few operas created by Black people; a narrative which undermines and erases Black people’s contributions to music.’

Allison Lewis and Nicholas Newton

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