The Dormant Masterworks Of Frederick Delius
(from "Maverick" by Frank Corsaro)
On March 2, 1884, the ocean liner Gallia departed Liverpool bound for America. Two weeks and a stormy crossing later, she docked in New York Harbor. With not a single celebrity aboard, the arrival passed unnoticed by the press but for a brief item concerning George Paynter, the Gallia's barkeep. Duly noted was the fact that this trip represented his five-hundredth crossing of the Atlantic. On board, and no doubt helping Paynter celebrate this historic event, was Frederick Delius, making the first of two trips to America, en route to claiming ownership of some orange groves in Solano Grove, Florida.
A similar passage into the American wilderness had been accomplished a half century earlier by a famous compatriot of the fledgling composer, the actress Fanny Kemble. In her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1838-1839) she struck a prophetic note when she described the singing of the Negro slaves: "The high voices, all in unison, and the admirable time and true accent with which their responses are made, always make me wish that some great musical composer could hear these semi-savage performances. With a little skillful adaptation and instrumentation, I think one or two barbaric chants and choruses might be evoked from them that would make a fortune of an opera."
By 1896, Delius had left his semitropical paradise and was back in England. The orange trees had rotted, but the impact of those "semi-savage performances" had endured. Casting about for a vehicle to contain the full measure of that impact, Delius hit upon a popular novel of the time, The Grandissimes, by the American, George Cable. The section on the rebel slave, Bras-Coupe, seemed an ideal subject for an opera. Being a staunch Wagnerite, not to mention a confirmed hedonist, Delius was not to be content, however, "with a little skillful adaptation." England at the time was the home of such worthies as James Barrie and Rudyard Kipling, and was playing host to the stagestruck Henry James and even to Cable himself Either from lack of acquaintance or literary taste, Delius eschewed their presence and prevailed upon Charles Francis Keary (1848-1917) to fashion a suitable libretto for him. Unfamiliar with American mores (black or white) or Cable's novel, Keary, a literary jack-of-all-trades, went about setting to verse the outlines of the plot as given him by Delius.
The operatic version of Bras-Coupe, ("Maimed Arm" in rough translation) was retitled Koanga (the original French name in Congolese). Its premiere in Elberfeld, Germany, in 1904, started a precedent that would become procedure. (A Village Romeo and Juliet, 1900-1901, and Delius's final masterpiece, Fennimore and Gerda, 1908-1910, first saw the light of the day in German opera houses). Koanga's debut performance sported a Russian as the mulatto Palmyra and an American, Charles Whitehall, as Koanga, in leopard skin and blackface. The opera was not to receive its first London performance until 1935, a year after the composer's death. On that occasion it was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden in a revised version by Beecham and Edward Agate. Again Koanga was a white man in blackface (John Brownlee). Lacking full pictorial evidence, I cannot guarantee the leopard skin had been entirely discarded. Both premieres elicited identical response: Keary's libretto was denigrated and Delius's music highly praised. Yet alack, alas, and sad to say, Miss Kemble's "fortune of an opera" was not to be. In fact, Koanga was not to be again until its American premiere in 1970, where Keary's gaucheries (revised from a revision.) still abounded, while Delius, Wagner-cum-spiritual, utterly captivated. More than a decade after Koanga's initial performance, the American Negro composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was to create a sister companion to Koanga with his Treemonisha, wherein Handelian anthems nestle with "semi-savage choruses." In their special ways, both works are transcendental views of racial tensions and aspirations.
"Transcendental" is a key word toward understanding the overwhelming success of Koanga at its Washington, D.C., premiere. Koanga is typically Delian. Filled with traditional operatic forms, it is, however, more tone poem than opera. Delius's pantheism is as strong a dramatis persona as any of the opera's characters. Perhaps time has been charitable to this composer, for the new media techniques employed in Koanga's behalf were successful in abrogating the canvas lakes and forests of standard operatic procedures and allowed the virtues of the work to shine in a new perspective.
The Washington Opera Society production was, in its inception, as freakish
as anything in the opera's history. Forced to cancel the local premiere
of Virgil Thompson's Four Saints in Three Acts. the Society was left to
fill a vacuum stuffed with contractual obligations to black artists. When
consulted by Mr. Hobart Spalding (then president of the Society), I suggested
Koanga as a suitable, even inspired, replacement. I assured the perplexed
Mr. Spalding that Koanga was indeed an opera and not the name of a boy's
camp in the Adirondacks. A play-through of the score created instant euphoria,
and plans were immediately initiated for its production. Enter Ronald Chase.
He also was one of the artists involved with the defunct Thompson project.
A brilliant sculptor and film designer, he was among the first to use media
devices effectively. I had admired his Turn of the Screw a year earlier
(also a Washington Opera Society offering). Chase's solution for Britten's
opera seemed to have come right out of my own head-lie had been an interloper
in my thoughts and I didn't even know "lie man. Here we finally were,
thrown together on our transient shores, and for a while he would still
remain unknown to me. Chase, based in San Francisco, and I in New York
began our plans for Koanga via the telephone. For the next few months we
managed a hefty telephone bill between us that the Opera Society willingly
paid. The entire production was created courtesy of A.T.&T. Chase and
I were actually to meet face to face for the first time on the cutting
room flo or. We had three months to prepare for the premiere in December
THE STORY OF KOANGA
Simon Perez, the tyrannical slave overseer on the plantation of Don Jose Martinez, has been forcing his attentions upon Palmyra the mulatto slave-girl who serves Clotilda, mistress of the plantation and wife of Don Jose. Don Jose announces that he has purchased a new slave, Koanga, who is an African prince and voodoo priest. Koanga, while refusing to submit to the white man's rule, is, however, captivated by the charms and beauty of Palmyra.
Palmyra in turn feels an unexplained attraction to Koanga, because of
his personal magnetism, and, more important, because he has stirred within
her a long-buried pride in her native race. Don Jose offers Palmyra as
Koanga's bride if he will submit to slavery. He agrees and renounces his
voodoo oath never to be a slave to those who bought him. Clotilda tells
Perez that the marriage must not take place because Palmyra is in fact
the illegitimate daughter of Clotilda's own father and a black- slave.
Because of this Palmyra must not marry a slave. Perez agrees to plot Palmyra's
abduction and prevent the marriage, thus saving Palmyra for himself. During
the wedding celebration Perez abducts Palmyra and the half-crazed Koanga
calls upon his voodoo gods for vengeance. He flees to the hills with a
band of fellow slaves. He finds Perez attempting to seduce Palmyra and,
in a bitter duel, he slays Perez. Perez's followers in turn slay Koanga.
In desperation, Palmyra, mourning her lost lover, stabs herself. The entire
story is told as a flashback by a conjureman.
In order to accurately re-create Koanga's Creole atmosphere of the late eighteenth century, Chase was dispatched to Louisiana in September, where he scouted a number of New Orleans mansions for possible location shooting. The estate Parlange (recently declared a national monument) was chosen to evoke the Grandissimes' mansion in the opera. Slave quarters were discovered in fine preservation on a run-down estate outside New Orleans. In two and a half weeks, Chase, armed with Nikkormat camera, took over five hundred still photographs (of which two hundred were used) and with a Bolex 16-mm. camera (hand-held and on tripod) shot over thirty minutes of film (of which twenty minutes were utilized). The media effects were the result of such techniques as superimposition and a process called bipacking, whereby films are placed one atop the other' through an optical machine in order to get opaque darknesses and multiple-color schemes. This process enabled us to create the occultish landscapes surrounding Koanga's flight from his white masters, and the ensuing voodoo rites. As in the later Village Romeo, three scrims - front, rear, and middle-distance - served as projection surfaces that could be used interchangeably. The film images would be in constant play during the course of the opera, thereby creating a unique time-space dimensional reality. A chorus of forty was kept offstage throughout, their voices emanating from speakers strategically placed in the auditorium. A suggestion of great distance was obtained and controlled electronically. Minimal set and props were in evidence: a platform representing the slave block and several cane chairs were the sole stage properties. Later, in Romeo, we would cover the orchestra pit with scrim so that the orchestra lights would not interfere with visual effectiveness. The Bayreuth-like absence of music stands would increase the poetic illusion.
Three performances of Koanga were given at the Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. - the last on my birthday. It was a huge goodie and for once I didn't feel slighted or forgotten in the holiday rush. Those responsible for Koanga's success were: the media team of Ronald Chase, who designed both the film and stage settings; Nananne Porcher, lighting designer; Skip Palmer, media operator representing Staging Techniques (and its battery of sixteen slide projectors and three 16-mm. movie projectors); costume designer Joseph Bella; and choreographer Doris Jones. Heading the cast of superb soloists were Eugene Holmes and Claudia Lindsey, both black artists-at last! The Washington Opera Society chorus and orchestra were under the leadership of Paul Callaway.
John Coveney, Director, Artist Relations at Angel Records and an ardent Delian himself, described the fruits of the collaboration: ". . . it was beautiful in an unearthly sort of way, but at the same time totally real. The spell of the Delius music was heightened to an extraordinary degree by the warm, glowing colors in the changing imagery of multimedia, as the singers wandered among lush beauties of nature ......
While Koanga may not make a fortune for the Delius estate, this production,
along with Makropoulos and those to follow, was to help create a form of
visual poetry that has helped forge a new theater metaphysics in America.
Its methods stretched the horizons of total theater and, most important,
a springboard was found to activate dormant musical masterworks of the
recent past. Shortly after Koanga's American debut, I received an inquiry
from Sadler's Wells in London regarding my interest in mounting the work
for their company. I naturally assumed our media team would be hired for
the venture, but English ardor cooled at such a prospect and we were left
dangling our heels . The London revival did take place with the Washington
leads, Eugene Holmes and Claudia Lindsay spearheading the cast. Charles
Groves, a not always ideal Delian, would conduct idiomatically, however,
and Keary's text, revised for the umpteenth time by Douglas Craig and Andrew
Page, finally made sense out of nonsense. The physical production was realistically
conceived, and a visible chorus of white singers donned blackface. The
critical reception was less than mixed in its praise. A witness at one
of the performances reported spotting patches of white gleaming through
the slapdash make-up of the chorus, adding a note of hilarity to the occasion.
Koanga had lacked size and punch for the British public, while it had received
a roaring welcome in America.
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