America’s First Black Opera Composer Left Behind a Rich, Untapped Archive

Harlem Renaissance composer Harry Lawrence Freeman's operas are largely forgotten, but his body of work may deserve a reconsideration.

Harry Lawrence Freeman with the cast of the Martyr in 1947

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Content warning: racial slurs


In 1928, The New York Times reviewed a new opera performance that had debuted on Broadway:

“Voodoo,” an opera by H. Lawrence Freeman, the negro composer, was presented for the first time last night at the Palm Garden with an all-negro cast of thirty singers. The composer utilizes themes from spirituals, Southern melodies and jazz rhythms which, combined with traditional Italian operatic forms, produce a curiously naïve mélange of varied styles.

The grand opera — completed in 1914 — depicted Lola, a voodoo queen on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction, who attempts to win the hand of her lover by using nefarious magic against another woman. It was written and composed by Harry Lawrence Freeman, the first documented African-American opera composer to stage his work in the United States. The show only ran for two performances.

harry lawrence freeman
H. Lawrence Freeman Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Today is the 150th anniversary of his birthday, and, despite his pioneering achievements in advancing black Americans into the realm of grand opera, Freeman’s work laid dormant for decades.

Then, in 2015, Voodoo was brought to life again.

Dr. Anne Holt was working as a graduate student in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in 2008 when Harry Lawrence Freeman’s great niece brought in cardboard boxes filled with the composer’s libretti. “It’s a collection of great value,” Holt says. “There aren’t many African-American composers of opera, and really there aren’t many American composers of opera.” She was charged with cataloguing the work, and Holt quickly became intent on reviving a Freeman opera for the first time since his death in 1954. As the executive artistic director of Morningside Opera in New York City, Holt approached the Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players to make it a reality.

Freeman’s oeuvre offered a rich selection of operas to choose from. There was The Martyr, a “sacred opera” set in ancient Egypt, American Romance, a contemporary jazz opera with a flapper lead, and a Zululand “African Music Drama” tetralogy based on novels by H. Rider Haggard. The group settled on Voodoo for its provocative subject matter and enlightening depiction of African-American identity during Reconstruction.

Freeman’s scores were never published. Until Columbia received them, they existed only in their handwritten form, some bound in red leather and embossed in gold letters. In order to stage a production of Voodoo, the score — an 800-page tome featuring banjoes and saxophones along with the rest of the instruments common in opera at the time — had to be entered painstakingly into a music software program in order to generate rehearsal-ready sheet music. Some of the performers used photocopies of Freeman’s own handwritten notes.

Dr. Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of the Harlem Opera Theater, conducted the joint-effort production. For Hopkins, staging Voodoo was about bringing the rich operatic tradition of the Harlem Renaissance back to the neighborhood. “I cannot compete with the Met for putting on Aida, Butterfly, or Carmen — as we call them, the ABCs of opera — but I can forge a path for lesser known and undiscovered operas so that African Americans in this community can have pride knowing there are people who look like them, with similar experiences to theirs, who are writing and performing opera.”

The show went on at the Miller Theater at Columbia University in June 2015. Voodoo was performed concert-style with minimal costuming and projected images to give a feel for a set. The focus was on Freeman’s long-unheard music, like the voodoo queen’s aria in the third act. The two scheduled performances sold out, and everyone who had worked to bring Freeman’s opera back from the dead hoped they would inspire other companies to similar undertakings. Reviews rolled in from The Guardian and the Times. They were charitable — especially to the production’s unique historic virtues — but the reviewers lamented some of Voodoo’s shortcomings. This time, the Times did not refer to the opera as a “naïve mélange” as it had in 1928.

Since that 2015 production at the Miller Theater, there haven’t been any more performances of Freeman’s operas. His work still sits in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library on Columbia’s campus, largely unperformed. It hasn’t gone completely untouched, though. Dr. La Vinia Delois Jennings, a Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee, has been sifting through Freeman’s writings and compositions for years. She is currently editing his unpublished anthology of black composers, and her knowledge of Freeman’s prolific career is unparalleled.

Although his operas were scarcely performed, Jennings notes the connections that Freeman made while teaching at Wilberforce University, a black-owned college in Ohio, and during his role in the Harlem Renaissance. Eubie Blake, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Ernest Hogan, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and, of course, Scott Joplin were just a few of the high-profile artists that crossed paths with Professor Freeman in the classroom or on tour. Noble Sissle stayed with him in his home for a time. He lived across the street from W.C. Handy. “Who he knew, who he touched, who he collaborated with, is just astounding,” Jennings says.

Still, the composer maintained a tight-knit bond with his family. His longtime wife, Charlotte, or Carlotta, starred in several of his operas, including Voodoo on Broadway, and his son Valdo — named after the titular role of his 1895 opera about a Mexican caballero — helped him to market his productions.

People unfamiliar with Freeman’s timeline might claim that his work echoed Gershwin. “My response is no,” Jennings says. “Gershwin did what [Freeman] had already done.”

The question of why Freeman did not receive opportunities and acclaim in the opera world during his lifetime beckons a simple answer. People of color were largely shut out of such artistic institutions, officially or unofficially. In a 1935 letter, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera claimed to have considered Freeman’s The Octoroon, but “to our regret, we do not see our way clear to accept this work.” Jennings says quiet roadblocks like this were ubiquitous for African-American artists at the time, and that the rejection letters Freeman received never disparaged the quality of his writing or music. “Freeman was trying to achieve something that the racial and social politics of the day excluded him from,” she says.

Harry Lawrence Freeman at piano
H. Lawrence Freeman Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Since he was mostly barred from big-budget opera halls, Freeman staged some of his own productions. Vendetta, a three-act set in Mexico, was performed at the Lafayette Theater as well as Park Palace. The Tryst, a one-act about Native Americans, had an engagement in New York as well. Freeman faced the challenge of requiring musicians who understood the classical traditions of opera as well as the American styles he blended into it. Without many resources, he found himself training musicians and singers on his work who sometimes could not read music, according to Jennings. His ambitious company, the Negro Grand Opera Company, incorporated in 1920, only managed to mount a few performances in that decade. In 1930, Freeman won a Harmon Prize, and in 1947 The Martyr — his first “grand opera” — took the stage at Carnegie Hall, with Freeman as director. The composer died seven years later, but Jennings doesn’t see that as the end of the story.

She cites black composer Shirley Graham’s debut of her opera Tom Tom in 1932, an event that attracted 10,000 people to its opening night in Cleveland — where Freeman was born — and 15,000 people the second night. “It had many of the African components that Freeman’s opera had,” Jennings says. “There was a live elephant onstage!” Treemonisha, Scott Joplin’s opera written and composed in the early century, finally found the big stage in 1972 at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In 1976, a posthumous Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Joplin, a close friend of Freeman. In 1949, Troubled Island, William Grant Still’s and Langston Hughes’s opera about the Haitian revolution was the first by black writers to be staged at the New York City Opera. Just last month, the Metropolitan Opera announced plans to produce its first opera by a black composer: “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard.

The focus on “firsts,” particularly when it comes to African-American culture, is a stark reminder to Dr. Jennings of all the years African-Americans have been kept out of awards and institutions. Though she believes the firsts should be celebrated, she is also interested in reclamation of an artist like Freeman. His operas are sitting in a library waiting to be brought to life, his unpublished writings illuminate the energetic atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance, and his only recorded music is languishing in a Columbia Records warehouse somewhere on obsolete platters. Opera may be an expensive undertaking (and few would call it the art form of our time), but the vast potential of untapped archives that contain the variety and breadth of Freeman’s should excite any artist or aficionado of music theatre — as long as they don’t mind a handwritten libretto.

Featured image: Freeman with the cast of The Martyr in 1947, H. Lawrence Freeman Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

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