KOANGA: Frederick Deliusí slave opera makes news in Washington

OPERA NEWS
November 19, 1970
 
by Florence Stevenson
 
 
There has been an upset in the repertory of Washington's Opera Society, with interesting results. On December 18, 20 and 21, the group will present Frederick Delius' Koanga instead of its previously scheduled Four Saints in Three Acts, by Virgil Thomson.
 
This operatic about-face has caused a small squall in the Society's teapot, but members of the organization are, on
the whole, reasonably calm about the events that led to the capsizing of Saints after a year of planning.
 
"After all," says Deena Epstein, director of publicity, "there was $80,000 at stake. That's the budget we needed to
produce Saints, and we couldn't afford to waste it." Thomson had, it seems, taken exception to director John
Butler's choreographic approach. "We felt that Mr. Butler's talents were suited to the production," says Miss
Epstein, "but Mr. Thomson did not agree, and unlike the six other living composers with whom we have been
associated (a list that includes Stravinsky and Menotti) he exercised what the publisher of Saints calls his
composer's veto and said we had to choose another director. Further, he said anything we did to the opera would
have to be under his immediate supervision. So we
decided to choose another opera."
 
"They called me," smiles director Frank Corsaro, and asked if I knew of any opera composed for a small Negro
cast. I immediately suggested Koanga.   Why such an obscure work? "I'm a long-time admirer of Delius. In fact, I'm a member of the English Delius Society. I joined several years ago."
 
Corsaro's nomination of Koanga was seconded by Paul Callaway, former music director of the Washington group
and still one of its conductors. "As it happens," he says, "I'm the music director of the Lake George Opera Festival,and last summer Frank, who was staging an opera there, and I discovered we have a common love for Delius'music. However, we didn't think we'd have an opportunity to stage one of his operas so quickly. He wrote six, you know, including A Village Romeo and Juliet - his most famous one."
 
The combined enthusiasm of Corsaro and Callaway proved irresistible to the Society. In the words of Hobart
Spalding, its president, "We heard a few tapes excerpted from the score, and we all agreed to do it. I must say it's
been a popular decision. Musicians from all over the country are planning to attend."
 
Though written by an Englishman, Koanga has a Southern background. Delius' third opera, it was started in 1895
and finished in 1897. The composer was inspired to write it after a sojourn in Solana, Florida, where he had gone to
become an orange planter.   Based on an episode from George Washington Cable's novel The Grandissimes (1880), it makes use of Negro spirituals and other folk music indigenous to the southern United States. But unlike Dvorak's similarly based Symphony "From The New World," Koanga has been sadly neglected. During the sixty-six years since its initial production, at Elberfeld, Germany, it has seen more shelf than stage. Its one major British viewing took place at Covent Garden in 1935, almost a year after the composer's death. John Brownlee and Oda Slobodskaya sang the leading roles, with choreography by Antony Tudor; the conductor was Sir Thomas Beecham, a fervent admirer of Delius. Subsequently, Beecham took it on a tour of the provinces, but it never attained any popularity. It has had even less attention in America: the editors of OPERA NEWS hove been able to discover only one other performance, in the early 1960's, sponsored by the Delius Association of Florida.
 
According to Corsaro and Callaway, there is no real reason why Koanga should have languished in obscurity for so
many seasons. Nor could Miss Epstein, who has heard bits and pieces of the score, offer an explanation: "The
music is ravishing, and besides, it's an interesting story - one of the few American operas to deal with
miscegenation."
 
As it happens, its plot may have helped to keep Koanga chained to the archives. The Grandissimes is a truly
excellent book, dealing sympathetically with the plight of slaves and quadroons in the apartheid society of New
Orleans, circa 1800. The story of Koanga - or Bras-Coupe, as he is named in the book - is only one episode, but
its repercussions are felt throughout the action and contribute to the ultimate downfall of one of the main characters.

Charles Francis Keary, the librettist, disemboweled the novel much in the manner of a modern movie scenarist,
reducing its complex characters to one-dimensional heroes and villains, the while emphasizing its more
melodramatic and old-fashioned aspects. Thus the noble savage Koanga, a captured African chieftain brought to
America and sold to Don Jose Martinez, plantation owner, falls in love with Palmyra, a beautiful mulatto stave girl.
Predictably, Perez, a wicked overseer, loves Palmyra too. When Martinez decides to mate Koanga to Palmyra,
Perez abducts her after the wedding ceremony, and Koanga, berserk with passion, leaps into the bayous. Then,
with the help of a local voodoo priest, he puts a curse on the plantation. At length he is captured and slain, while
Palmyra falls on Koanga's spear. In the novel, Palmyra is in love with a young white Grandissime heir and eventually ends up with an annual income of $50,000 to ensure her the good life in Paris.
 
"The text was revised by Beecham and a man called Wingate," says Corsaro. "That's the one we're using. Still, it's an old-fashioned libretto. Part of its charm lies in its archaic language, though it's full of words like 'nigger' and
advances the Uncle Tom happy slave attitude, something the novel does not do."
 
"Yes, it is old-fashioned," agrees William Roy, the young New York City Opera bass who will sing Martinez, "but I
think the characters are well drawn, even in the libretto. For instance, Martinez is not really a villain - he acts
according to his lights. He sees his slaves as pieces of machinery, helpful to the running of the plantation as a
tractor might be. I feel it's a valid characterization, with quite a bit of interest for a modern audience. Of course, it's a very romantic opera."
 
"It has a Debussy-like quality;" says conductor Callaway, "in that there are not many arias, though there are
aria-like pieces for Koanga and Palmyra. It's wonderful music, full-blown and lyrical."

"That's true;" Roy remarks. "Delius was singularly attuned to nature. You find that in all his music, especially the
interludes he included in Koanga. That's another reason why the opera is so difficult to stage: an opera audience is
liable to become restless during those long orchestral passages."

"Also, there are some very abrupt changes of scene," says Corsaro. "But we're going to conquer both these
problems with mixed media. I'm utilizing a lot of filmed sequences to underscore and interpret the action. Ronald
Chase, our designer, is going through Florida, scouting old plantations. You know, the best-preserved plantations,
with slave quarters intact, are in Florida, and the locale is amazingly similar to that of Louisiana."
 
"Chase is also going through the Louisiana bayous;" adds Deena Epstein.  "We'll have lots of film."

"However, it's not going to be entirely pictorial;" Corsaro explains. "I'm using abstract patterns in the voodoo
sequences; they should work very well indeed. As for the sets, they're very simple. And I'm keeping the entire
chorus offstage."
 
Having circumvented the staging difficulties of Koanga, both Corsaro and Callaway feel reasonably sure the music
will attract more of an audience than before. "I think people will be more receptive to Delius these days," saps
Callaway. "It's an original talent, with its own flavor." Might the Washington production spark a Delius revival?  "As it happens;" Corsaro smiles, "I'm going to stage A Village Romeo and Juliet during the 1971-72 season in Honolulu."
 
"There!" exclaims Roy. "It's in the wind, isn't it?"
 
"High time, too;" adds Callaway with a nod. "As to whether our production will fire the opening gun, that would be
immodest to predict. But I certainly hope something will happen."
 

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