Sunday, April 25, 2021

Portland Opera's "Journey To Justice" effectively spotlights the Black experience

Portland Opera strongly addressed racism with a thought-provoking concert of powerful art songs mostly written by composers of color and sung by gifted, young opera singers of color. Directed by Chip Miller and filmed for an online audience, this concert, entitled Journey To Justice, was curated by singer/composer Damien Geter, and the timing couldn’t be much more on the spot due to Derek Chauvin trial and the ongoing prevalence of race-related problems across the nation.

The concert opened with “Songs for the African Violet” written by Jasmine Barnes (both music and text) in praise of Black women. Soprano Leah Hawkins ardently delivered vivid lines such as “Brown like the Earth but much richer” and “She birthed generation and they hate her.” Later she asks if it is fair to be judged by the color of your skin, and after a crashing chord on the piano declaims “no, it isn’t.” “Flowers, water your flowers,” is tenderly poignant. The last movement, “Crown” breaks into a jazzy-gospel passage and ends with an ecstatically.

Shawn Okpebholo’s “Two Black Churches,” movingly sung by Michael Parham, relates the story of a little girl who wants to participate in a Freedom March but is told by her mother to go the church instead to avoid the problem of hate and racism. The girl goes to church which is bombed by racists – just like it was in Birmingham, Alabama in 1964. The second church conveys the grief after the shooting of parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The slow visual flashes at the end of the piece suggest a transition to a future that is undefined.

Stephen Charles Flaherty’s “Your Daddy’s Son” from the musical “Ragtime” was sung with conviction by soprano Lynnesha Crump. Although the music was simpler and less complex than all of the other pieces on the program, the context of the song – a mother dealing with no father to help her raise her baby – was tremendously effective.

Narrator Ithica Tell, mezzo-soprano Jasmine Johnson, and a small chorus (all separated six feet apart) presented Damien Geter’s “The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with the Police” with conviction. “The Talk” is no-nonsense and straightforward. The moving element of this piece is the fact that the talk is necessary for people of color to stay alive. It was an excellent setup for the next piece.

“Night Trip,” a one-act opera by Carlos Simon with a libretto by Sandra Seaton received terrific performances, led by Jasmine Johnson as Conchetta, 16-year-old girl excited to travel from the city to a small town where she has freedom to run around and visit her aunts. She is driven there by her Uncle Wesley, sung with steely nerve by Edwin Jhamal Davis, and her Uncle Mack, whose vulnerability was sung charismatically by David Morgans Sanchez. The trip goes awry after they have to stop at a gas station of fill up. The music conveys tension and drama in a compact space with an outcome that is sobering and still hopeful.

The concert ended on high ground with Lynnesha Crump delivering inspiring words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Songs of Love and Justice” by Dr. Adolphus Hailstork. “Good men must overcome the terrible deeds of evil men” was one of the many meaningful lines that emphasized the importance of love to bring about a better world.

Evocative piano accompaniment by Nicholas Fox and Sequoia enhanced each piece as did the lovely playing of cellist Dylan Rieck in “Songs for the African Violet” and bass clarinetist Louis DeMartino in ““Your Daddy’s Son.”

“Journeys To Justice” is augmented by excellent videos that discuss the selection of the pieces in the program, the perspective of Black singers and composers in the world of opera, and Oregon’s history of racism. These presentations and the concert make Journeys To Justice well-worth the trip, which is available for online streaming until May 31st. Kudos to Portland Opera and all involved.

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