KOANGA: A Timely but Neglected Opera

Chicago Tribune 12-21-70

Washington • FREDERICK DELIUS' almost forgotten "Negro" opera, "Koanga," is a sort of "Tristan and Isolde" in blackface, born of a pre-Civil War American plantation novel, the British composer's personal experience in the South and the European musical milieu at the turn of the 20th century. For the American premiere - and first performance of the work since Sir Thomas Beecham's 1935 revival in England - a further incongruity was added - multiplane projected settings by a most gifted designer and photographer, Ronald Chase.

The production introduced last Friday, was performed by the 0pera Society of Washington in George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. If for no other reason than the neglected abilities of its composer and the timeliness of its civil rights subject, it deserves a place in the operatic annals of America. Producers who are willing to spend the time and energy necessary to bring deserving works back to life are as important to music as those willing to gamble on entirely new works.

But "Koanga" should be heard and seen for itself as well as its history. The lavender-scented strains of Delius’ orchestration - revised by Sir Thomas Beecham - fit the aristocratic South of George Washington Cable's "The Grandissimes" as tho matched by an unexpectedly subtle hand. Tonal shades and colors may change less subtly, it is true. "Koanga" is more Gauguin than Sisley. Banjo pizzicato and Wagnerian modulations are strange companions, even viewed from the musical distances which separate us far from the gay nineties.

Like the novelist whose work provided him with the plot, Delius and his librettist, C. F. Keary, were struggling with the facts of slave life.   The heroine, Palmyra, is a mulatto whose white streak interferes with her marriage to another slave. Koanga is an African prince and voodoo priest newly brought to bondage. His independent spirit rekindles the flames of racial pride in the girl. Her beauty causes him to accept his enslavement. An overseer, appropriately named Simon, kidnaps the girl on their wedding day.  Infuriated, Koanga flees, uttering a voodoo curse. After killing the overseer, he is hunted down and whipped to death, whereupon Palmyra stabs
herself. So much for the plot of the first Negro opera.

It is Mr. Chase's visual design which makes all this acceptable and for the most part enjoyable. There is no scenery and only minimal props. Semi-transparent theatrical scrim takes the place of the customary drops and flats. On them, from all sides as well as front and hack, are projected a continually changing series of photographs, carefully scaled and balanced to produce the effect of perspective and lighting direction. At times, the stage resembles a "tableau vivant" of the period. There is minimal onstage movement and the important chorus is placed off stage and heard thru loudspeakers. At other times, one gets the impression of a black and white stereopticon fantasy, lightly tinted with watercolor. And in the final scene, the yellows and whites are warm as a Turner

This fluid visual surrounding is far more effective than any possible combination of painted sets. Even when motion pictures spoil the rhythm and pace, they keep our minds off of the incongruities presented by the gussied up work songs, voodoo dances and heldentenor arioso.  Both Edward Pierson and Claudia Lindsey, the principal singers, coped remarkably well with their roles.  Mr. Pierson looks better than he sings, but the part is murderously high for a supposed baritone.  Miss Lindsay sings better than she moves, but that, too, is hardly serious, considering the lack of character development in what remains essentially a fantasy rather than a life experience.  Paul Callaway, the conductor and chorus master extracted the last bit of sunshine and juice from the score of cotton fields and citrus groves.