By CARMAN MOORE
New York Times 12-27-70
WASHINGTON, D.C. - There are actually two events taking place concurrently
when Frederick Delius's opera about slavery, "Koanga," is presented. The
first is a rather handsome-sounding oratorio full of pleasant passages
sonically equidistant, perhaps, from Wagner, Verdi, and Grieg. The other
is is a well-meant but ill-conceived little play adapted by librettist
C. F. Kerry from George Washington Cable's Louisiana novel, "The Grandissimes."
In part because it was the 19th century, a time in the arts when romance
and exoticism still took precedence over research, "Koanga" comes off as
somewhat of a high-class minstrel show - Delius's music virtually never
stopping to inject a black note into its parts and Keary's libretto too
busy tripping over "alas," "nay," and Milton's grave
to really take you to the plantation. The result, in spite of the competent solo singing and good looks of this American premiere by the Opera Society of Washington, is a messy, funny and, for non-students of history, dangerous contribution to the mythology of matters black.
Imagine, if you will, a post-Emancipation plantation where six white lily belles, tired of dancing all the day, prevail upon old Uncle Joe to tell once more the oft-told tale of how the uppity ways of Koanga, recently-enslaved Jaloff (Wolof) prince and voodoo priest, were undone by the love of the tempestuous half-breed slave girl, Palmyra. The Wolofs, by the way, are an Islamic tribe of Senegal. Flash yourself back and hear the slaves singing such stinging indictments of slavery as:
We are pulling, pulling, pulling
Downy seeds as white as snow.
We are culling, culling, culling
Dainty heads of indigo.
Come out, brothers, come out
to cut the waving cane;
The moonlight shadows are jaded
and the day is back again
The humming bird is waking,
good brothers don't complain
So come once more and hasten
to the fields of sugar cane.
Imagine that one Simon Perez, the white slave driver, is unrequitedly in love with Palmyra. Say that, when ol marse Don Jose Martinez (wicked Spaniards!) orders him to break Koanga's will, Perez replies, "Alas, my master, none such as he can be made to yield. Over a wild and savage clan once he was Prince and Priest. His tribe were ever more ashamed did he but bend the knee."
When Don Jose cunningly sicks Palmyra - or rather pours her, potion-like - on the voodoo prince, he sets off the conflicts which cause his wife Clotilda, frightened that Palmyra, secretly her father's child, would he marrying black (though not bothered that she is enslaved), to conspire with the jealous Perez to abduct Palmyra and marry her up to Perez himself (operatic love happens fast enough, but when the amour is Ethiop, you just put them together and stand back, like when Miss Match meets Mr. TNT). After Palmyra is kidnapped, Koanga escapes to the hills with other slaves, practices a dulls voodoo, returns and kills Perez and is himself killed. And so Uncle Joe finishes up his tale, and the verandah belles weep and recover under the magnolias.
What have we here? Amid white and European arrogance so rampant and slavery so horrid, a Delius (who ran a Florida orange plantation in the, 1880's), Cable and Keary, by even writing pieces depicting a black as noble, come off by comparison, as daringly compassionate. A young Delius in throes of developing a personal classical music style, treating his spiritual-singing field slaves to the corrective of some Verdi-Wagneresque passages, spiced up with some Stephen Foster. Keary turning them into a kind of Greek chorus and letting Koanga - the American incarnation of Noble Savage - do a Samson Agonistes (cum Lycidas in the Epilogue).
Stack it all up and you have at the top two European intellectuals, Delius and Keary, disdainfully questioning how the next guy, the white planter, could be in cahoots with the even more vile slave driver who stands a rung above the un-Christian African prince voodooist, who at least is better than your common Congo chattel – the whole thing constitutes the very warp and woof of Western bigotry. Let it be said of Louisiana novelist Cable, best-known for his careful descriptions in the 1860's of African music and dance in New Orleans, that he was driven out of the South for objecting to mistreatment of post-Emancipation blacks.
In Washington, there were also some problems last Friday. Conductor
Paul Callaway simply could not get his offstage chorus to sing on time
nor was his orchestra negotiating their parts or staying under the singers.
Bass-baritone Eugene Holmes, who acted well and looked marvelous in a splendid
Prospero-style garb (which somehow survived the trip in the slave ship
without mashing a feather), failed to show the tonal richness of which
his voice is capable. But there were also some fine moments. As Palmyra,
Claudia Lindsey, barring a strained high note or two, acted well and sang
impressively-to-movingly in a rich, wet voice. Other soloists - Joyce
Gerber as Clotilda, Will Roy as Don Jose Martinez and William McDonald
as Simon Perez - also sang exceptionally well. Director Frank Corsaro
made up for his stiff blocking of the singers with a total visual display
fed the eye and kept to the spirit of the libretto. But the star of the production was designer Ronald Chase, who handled scenery as a series of gorgeous pastel film projections.
Attended here, over 70 years after its world premiere, "Koanga's"
value resides almost totally in its music. Often played on the air is the
Prelude to Act II, and it is a light, and lovely piece of music. Though
there is some appeal in the manliness of Prince Koanga and in the pluck
of Palmyra, the libretto and story, unlike stock minstrelsy's 100-year
purveying of the worthless Nigger myth, serve simply to fortify the modern
myth of the superior Negro - the exception to the rule. A good laugh, they
say, is good for the digestion, but I believe my meal would go down better
with either a competent recording of the Delius score or with the same
of Mahalia Jackson singing real spirituals.
BACK TO THE KOANGA AMERICAN PREMIERE PAGE