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Composer Steven Allen talks about upcoming performance of his opera "The Poet"

Acclaimed mezzo soprano Denyce Graves will make a guest appearance as Matilda Dunbar in the opera "The Poet" by Steven Allen. is based on the life and love of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Acclaimed mezzo soprano Denyce Graves will make a guest appearance as Matilda Dunbar in the opera "The Poet" by Steven Allen. is based on the life and love of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
File photo courtesy of the author.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the interest of operas composed by African-American composers. The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis still represents a pinnacle in this success of mainstream recognition in the main stage repertory and most recently Trilogy, an opera based on the life of Paul Robeson by Adolphus Hailstork saw its debut last year in Newark.

The Poet by D. C. based composer Steven M. Allen will be performed next week at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Celebrating the life and love of the celebrated poet and his wife Alice Ruth Moore, Allen's work is a collection of vignettes from his larger opus Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows.

We sat down with the composer to learn more about the inspiration behind this upcoming performance and his thoughts on the works of African-American composers in the traditional operatic canon.

DC PERFORMING ARTS EXAMINER: What potential or possible impact do you see in having the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar portrayed to Washington audiences in the form of opera?

STEVEN ALLEN: As the first famous African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar was a historic figure in Washington, DC. Dunbar's poetry has a lyrical flow that intrigued me as a composer and his life lends itself to the operatic genre.

DCPA: The Poet is a collection of vignettes from a larger work. Talk more about its genesis and the earlier performances.

SA: This opera in particular is designed to celebrate the birthday of Dunbar. Whereas Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows was inspired by Dunbar's volume of poetry published in 1901. This volume was written during his correspondence with Moore. This led me to their letters. After studying the letters, it occurred to me this was indeed a story of operatic proportions. Act I of the work was premiered at the Catholic University of America. Since, the work has been performed by Opera North, Philadelphia, PA and the Kennedy Center's Page-To-Stage Festival.

DCPA: Your opera is focused on a prominent figure of the African American community. In what ways does the plight of Dunbar transcend race? What is the likelihood or hope that this work would be embraced as a part of the opera canon such as Porgy and Bess?

SA: Dunbar suffered a life of duality. He was not really accepted in the white world and often times only celebrated for his "darky poems" and his other standard English poetry went unnoticed. He also suffered the insecurities of being a dark skinned man which often caused him to suffer from self doubt and self hatred. He documented this in his writings. The likelihood can't be answered but the hope is high. Like Porgy and Bess, this is not only a slice of African American history but American history and has much to offer .

DCPA: There are several local singers involved in the production. Discuss the process and importance of casting the right voice for the portrayal of a given character.

SA: I spent a summer studying the voice of Gregory J. Watkins and actually composed the role of Dunbar based on his voice and features. Other characters were given equal consideration.

DCPA: Samuel Coleridge Taylor was inspired to set many of Dunbar's poems to music Who are some of the musical influences that you leaned towards in the composition of your operas?

SA: In fact. Dunbar and Taylor work together of several libretti. I would have to say the impressionist composers such as DeBussy, Ravel and Scriabin and American folk music.

DCPA: Often times, the libretto of an opera is written by another person. Talk to us about the construction and form of your work.

SA: The libretto was inspired from over 500 letters between Dunbar and Moore during their courtship. It is mostly focused on the two years before they met. The work was constructed using various poems and short stories and well as historical information.

DCPA: Seemingly, there are few performances of operas by African American composers presented on the main stages of opera. In what ways can the arts community support such musical diversity in the genre of opera.

SA: People should not be afraid to embrace opera, particularly American opera. We must go outside of "The Masters" and make way for new and interesting works. Changes need to be taken and the stigma of opera should be removed by those in the art community so that everyone knows that it is available to them. Opera used to be the popular music of the day. Let's make it that way again.

DCPA: Moving ahead, what other figures or topics would you consider composing and opera around?

SA: I am debating projects based on Jeremiah, the Prophet, Charles Manson and a parody of Gone With The Wind.

The Poet will be performed on Friday, June 27 at 7:30 p.m. in Paul Laurence Dunbar High School Auditorium, 101 N. Street, N.W., Washington D. C.


Gregory Watkins, baritone

Lisa Edwards Burrs, soprano

Daniel Noone, tenor

with special guest artist:

DENYCE GRAVES, mezzo-soprano

as Matilda Dunbar

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets

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