The field of opera libretto writing has been traditionally dominated by white, male composers. However, there were some notable black figures in the world of opera and born in the 18th and 19th centuries who made significant contributions in the field of performance and composition.
William Henry Brown (1815-1884) was an African American actor, singer, and librettist who was one of the first black men to perform on the American stage. He wrote several librettos for the African Grove Theatre in New York City, which was the first African American theater company in the United States.
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a Canadian-American composer, pianist, and choir director who wrote several works for choir and orchestra. He is considered one of the most prominent black composers of the early 20th century.
Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) was an African American composer, arranger and singer, who was known for his arrangements of spirituals, a form of gospel music that emerged from the African American community. He also wrote several songs, arrangements, and librettos for operas.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was an African American pianist and composer who is considered the “King of Ragtime”. He wrote several operas, including “Treemonisha” which was posthumously premiered in 1972.
Listen to the Overture from Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha”
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was an English-African composer and conductor who was of Sierra Leonean descent. He wrote several works for orchestra, choir, and solo voice and is known for his opera “The Song of Hiawatha”.
James Reese Europe (1880-1919) was an African American musician, composer, and bandleader, who was known for his contributions to the development of ragtime and jazz. He wrote several songs, arrangements, and librettos for operas.
Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) was an African American composer, violinist, and conductor, who was known for his contributions to the development of musical theater and opera. He wrote several songs, arrangements, and librettos for operas.
Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) was an African American composer, conductor, and music teacher, who was known for his contributions to the development of opera in the United States. He wrote several operas, including “Voodoo,” which was performed in New York City in 1903.
Listen to Lolo’s “Voodoo Queen” aria from Act III of VOODOO by Harry Lawrence Freeman, composed c. 1914
Concert performance presented by Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players on June 26, 2015 in New York City
Performed by Janinah Burnett (“Lolo”) and Barry L. Robinson (“Fojo”)
George Bridgetower (1778-1860) was an Afro-Polish violinist and composer who wrote several works for violin and piano. He is also known for his collaboration with Ludwig van Beethoven in the creation of the “Kreutzer Sonata” which premiered in Vienna in 1803.