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Harlem Renaissance Opera to Hit the Stage for First Time in 86 Years

By Gustavo Solis | December 10, 2014 4:05pm

HARLEM — A century-old opera written by a Harlem Renaissance composer nicknamed "The Colored Wagner” is being revived.

"Voodoo," written by Harry Lawrence Freeman in 1914, will be performed for the first time since 1928 in the summer 2015.

The opera follows a love triangle between three former slaves living on a Louisiana plantation after the Civil War. Two women fall in love with the same man and the scorned woman turns to voodoo magic to get rid of the competition.

It was the first African-American opera staged on Broadway and one of the first American operas to be broadcast on the radio, said Annie Holt, who discovered the manuscript while getting her PhD in Theater at Columbia University.

Part of what makes it so appealing is Freeman’s style of combining classical opera with modern music and dance, she added.

“I got a little bit obsessed with him I guess,” Holt said of Freeman after she found 22 of his operas eight years ago. “I spent almost a year cataloging his collection.”

She has taken even more time to digitize the documents, inputting each note and word into computer software. Although Freeman’s handwriting is fairly clear compared to other composers of the time, it was not clear enough to be used in a performance as is, said Holt, the artistic director at Morningside Opera.

Holt’s original idea was to do a scaled-down version of "Voodoo," with a small cast and a few instruments. But she teamed up with two organizations — Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players — to produce the show with a 30-piece orchestra, a 12-person chorus and a seven-person cast.

“It was actually a tough decision because a full opera is expensive and we are three small organizations,” said Liz Player, director of the Harlem Chamber Players. “I actually said no at first because I didn’t think we could afford it. But I couldn’t let it go, I literally couldn’t sleep.”

The group was able to raise more than $23,000 from a fundraising campaign. Last week they secured Columbia University’s Miller Theater and will perform "Voodoo" June 26 and 27.

Auditions will begin in January, Player added.

Freeman, who looked up to German composer Richard Wagner, was a student of the classics but also a friend of Scott Joplin, so there are bits of jazz and ragtime in the composition, Holt said.

Freeman was an active figure during the Harlem Renaissance, known for hosting a musical salon night on the weekends. Guests included famous musicians and writers of the time, Holt added.