Though classical music has often been used as a cultural cudgel of White supremacy, history illustrates that some of Black America’s foremost thinkers have enjoyed it, valued it and found uplift in it much like they found inspiration in African American spirituals.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reportedly loved the operas of Lucia Donizetti. W.E.B. DuBois commented of German composer Richard Wagner (so infamous for his anti-Semitism there was a longtime ban on his music being played in Israel) that “no human being can afford not to know” Wagner’s works.
Opera is the vehicle Ethan Heard, co-director of the forward-thinking Heartbeat Opera, uses in his company’s quest to raise awareness of racial injustice. In 2014, its third season, Heartbeat Opera started turning toward addressing those issues. “I personally started getting involved, and saw opera is really mired in some very racist, sexist traditions,” said Heard.
In 2018, its consciousness raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement, Heartbeat Opera decided to use their work to respond. “We saw we were just doing work by White writers and felt it was time to research work by Black composers,” said Heard. Mounting a production of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” they included singers from a number of prison choral groups. The opera chronicles a wife’s boundless quest to free her wrongfully incarcerated husband.
This year, Heartbeat Opera built on that collaboration with “Breathing Free,” affirmatively celebrating Black voices in the classical music space. “‘Breathing Free’ is a 45-minute visual album that features excerpts from Beethoven’s politically symbolic opera ‘Fidelio,’ Negro sprituals, and other works by Black composers and lyricists,” said Heard. The composers include Harry T. Burleigh, Florence Price, Langston Hughes, and Fulani Davis.
Six performances of “Breathing Free” will be presented on Heartbeat Opera’s YouTube channel, December 4 thru 12. Each performance will be followed by live panel discussion covering a number of issues such as opera’s historic indifference to colonization of people of color, the intersectionality of queerness and Blackness, reparations, and allyship. There is a private link for ticket holders and comp tickets for those experiencing financial difficulty.
One of the panels, called “Voices of Incarceration,” will feature Michael Powell, one of the men who performs in perhaps the most celebrated scene in the opera, the “Prisoner’s Chorus” (O Welche Lust).
A percussionist for many years before he was incarcerated, Powell became a vocalist in Marion Correctional Facility’s KUJI Men’s Chorus. Prior to participating in “Breathing Free,” he played Lafayette in their production of “Hamilton.”
Powell recalled being taken aback when they were first asked to perform the “Prisoner’s Chorus.” “Where I’m from, we don’t do opera. That is not in our wheelhouse at all!”
Though the themes of the chorus were familiar to Powell, the language was not. The “Prisoners Chorus” was to be sung in the native German by the inmates. “I didn’t have the confidence in my voice and I didn’t think I could learn German,” he confided. Powell was also not going to be satisfied with merely learning the words in German. “I wanted to know what the words meant so I could convey the feeling behind it.”
Eventually, Powell, who was recently released from prison primarily because of a rampant COVID-19 outbreak there, found his way: “Imagine being secluded for so long and then stepping out into the light. You have trepidation about going out there because you don’t want it to be taken from you. I could identify with that,” he said.
The Ohio-born-and-raised Powell also had the epiphany that he had been in a prison for much longer than he realized. “It helped me see that I had been living like that long before I ever got incarcerated. Even things like being too happy or too boisterous,” said Powell. “I didn’t want to be too happy because I thought someone might come along and try to take that away from me.”
As for what he’d like viewers to take away from watching the production, Powell said he wants them to know, “One, there is power in love and when someone truly loves someone there are no obstacles they can’t overcome.”
Powell points to Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z as some of his favorite musicians. “Those artists,” said Powell, “make the type of music that speak about the experiences of their lives, but also how they transcended them, and give a call to action to listeners to move forward and be better.”
For more info, visit heartbeatopera.org.