Delius' KOANGA:

(April 12-14, 2007)
(click on image for larger version)

Here is a link to hear the portion of the April 5 BBC Radio 4 "Front Row"
program with Mark Lawson which discussed Delius' KOANGA:

Delius out of Africa

By Nick Kimberley, Evening Standard  13.04.07
Koanga: slave to the rhythm

Opera has always loved exotic locations but when Yorkshire-born Frederick Delius set Koanga on an 18th-century Louisiana plantation, it wasn't as fanciful as it might seem. In the 1880s, he managed an orange plantation in Florida; entranced by the music of the black workers, he allowed their harmonies to permeate his opera about black slaves and their struggle for love and dignity.

Inevitably Koanga, premiered in 1904, romanticizes the slaves as noble savages, yet the music is nourished by genuine empathy. Delius's European romanticism gains extra life from the transfusion of "alien" musical blood, and even the inclusion of a couple of banjos is made to fit, if imperfectly. To mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Pegasus Opera Company (motto: "Harmony in Diversity") is giving London its first sight of Koanga for 35 years, and while it doesn't emerge as a masterpiece, it is more than a mere curiosity.

The production is blessed with central performances of real presence. In the role of Palmyra, the mixed-race slave who provides love interest, Alison Buchanan displays a rich, occasionally vibrato-heavy timbre. Sadler's Wells is not an easy theatre for a voice to fill, but when Palmyra prepares for death, as operatic heroines usually must, Buchanan rivets the attention. Here, Delius is at his most Wagnerian and not shamed by the comparison. As Koanga, the new arrival from Africa whose voodoo practices threaten the plantation's Christian veneer, Leonard Rowe is more commanding still, and manages to make the text work.

Although the rest of the singers struggle to get the words across, they are not always helped by the cumbersome libretto and Delius's dense harmonic textures, which in turn are not well served by the rough-and-ready playing of the Aurelian Ensemble under Martin Andre'. Nor does Helena Kaut-Howson's staging get beyond operatic convention. Movement is stilted, everything is delivered face-out to the auditorium, and the decision to include a quartet of cavorting supernumeraries provides more clutter than clarity.   Delius deserves better.

Slaves to the rhythm
OPERA: Some fine soloists - and a couple of banjos - do their utmost to enliven a rare staging of Delius opera Koanga: Koanga Sadlers Wells, London EC1

From The Observer - 22/04/2007
Observer Review Arts Pages


APOLOGY OR NO, the debate prompted by this year's bicentenary of the abolition of the British empire's slave trade must surely suggest that it is now beyond tactless, if not yet illegal, to sing 'Britons never, never, never shall be slaves'. Given that it is also, you might venture, quite some time since Britannia could even vaguely be said to have ruled the waves, William Wilberforce can now be called in aid by those who have long wished the Last Night of the Proms to be a due celebration of the world's greatest annual music festival rather than a flag-waving outpouring of jingoistic nostalgia for the mixed blessings of this country's imperial past.

Sermon over - or would be, were it not for another musical moment prompted by this year's anniversary: a rare revival of the slave opera Koanga , staged by a company forged by a 1992 production of Porgy and Bess to improve the opportunities offered to young singers in this country from all ethnic backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the founder of Pegasus Opera, Lloyd Newton, reports that 'there is still undoubtedly some way to go'.

For now, he can but offer thanks for the improbable youth of a Bradford lad born in 1862 with the unusual Yorkshire name of Theodor Albert Frederick Delius, known to his parents as 'Fritz'. Finding himself 'unsuited' to life in the family textile business, Frederick secured his father's reluctant blessing in 1884 to head off to Florida to grow oranges. There, he took lessons in counterpoint and composition, as orange-growers do, before decamping to New York, Germany and, finally, France.

But the songs of the Negro workers in Florida stuck in Delius's mind. Their distinctive melodies and improvised harmonies inspired his 1887 Florida Suite (written in Leipzig) and Koanga , written in Norway and France in 1895-7, premiered in Germany in 1904 and last seen in London 35 years ago. Drawn from a story by George Washington Cable, it offers a vivid portrait of the struggle of late-18th-century slaves in America to win even a shred of human dignity.

The arrival of an enslaved African prince on a Louisiana plantation precipitates a saga of love and betrayal that proceeds via escape and voodoo rituals to the seemingly inevitable deaths of both. The original stilted libretto by CF Keary has been much revised, most recently by playwright Olwen Wymark, in an attempt to help it resonate for our times. But the cruel acoustic of Sadler's Wells, whose large pit presents a formidable challenge to singers, meant that few words could be deciphered beyond the solo lines of the two principals, Leonard Rowe and Alison Buchanan as Koanga and his beloved Palmyra.

These towering central performances were ably supported by Aris Nadirian as the dastardly plantation owner Don Jose Martinez and Adrian Dwyer as his henchman Perez. But Helena Kaut-Howson's staging did little to breathe theatrical life into a largely static piece, enlivened only by the occasional eruptions of a troupe of manic dancers. The neglect into which the piece has fallen has less to do with its unusual casting requirements than with Delius's miscasting as a composer of operas.

His want of theatrical instinct sees the work progress at a stately, often monotonous pace enlivened only by a few set-pieces. That he had recently fallen under the spell of Wagner is evident throughout, apart from the charming introduction of a pair of banjos to remind us we are in the Deep South. Given no more than an adequate performance by the Aurelian Ensemble under Martin Andre, this work seems destined to return indefinitely to the operatic wings, where, musically, if not philosophically, it probably belongs.

Dark tale from Delius

From The Express on Sunday - 22/04/2007

By Clare Colvin

Review OPERA


Pegasus Opera Company Sadler's Wells, London (run ended)

OPERA is racially all-embracing when it comes to divas such as the black American soprano Grace Bumbry, whose roles ranged from Nordic goddess Fricka in The Ring Cycle to Verdi's Lady Macbeth.

But operas written specifically for black singers are few - only Gershwin's popular Porgy & Bess springs readily to mind.

Delius's rarely performed black opera Koanga was chosen by Pegasus Opera to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade because of its subject - it is set in the deep south of America during the days of slavery. Delius had a special affection for his first opera, in which he captured the atmosphere of the Deep South where he had worked on a Florida orange plantation in the 1880s.

The songs of the workers remained in his mind and inspired his music.

In this highly-charged tale of romance and revenge, the African prince Koanga is brought to a southern plantation ruled by Don Jose Martinez and his henchman Perez. They can't break his spirit, so they marry him off to the slave Palmyra, who is Martinez's illegitimate mixed-race daughter.

Koanga rebels against the owner's tyranny, casts a voodoo spell on the plantation and kills Perez, but he himself is killed at the end. The score is an eclectic mix of Wagnerian influences with a touch of negro spirituals when the whole cast erupts into hand-clapping. There's even occasional strumming of banjos beside the stage. The libretto, partly Delius's own, has been revised numerous times since the 1904 premiere. It was adapted for this revival, the first in London for 35 years, by the playwright Olwen Wymark.

As Koanga, Canadian baritone Leonard Rowe, a former Porgy at New York City Opera, is commanding both in physique and voice. Alison Buchanan as Palmyra has a rich full tone, and her death scene, evocative of Wagner's Brunhilde, grips the attention. Njabulo Madlala also impressed as Voodoo priest Rangwan.

Enslaved to swamp fever

From The Sunday Telegraph - 22/04/2007

By Peter Reed


Delius's Koanga certainly fulfils Pegasus Opera Company's brief as far as 'empowering those who feel pushed towards the periphery of the opera world' (to quote Pegasus's founder Lloyd Newton) is concerned, but however honourably their new production strives for cultural and ethnic inclusion - this new production at Sadler's Wells, the first in London for 35 years, is one of the events marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery - there's no disguising this early (1897) work's flaws.

As a young man, Delius ran an orange plantation in Florida, and the heady music of the black workers was the major source of inspiration for this romantic tale of conflicted love and religion set among the slaves on an estate in 18th-century Louisiana. There is also another powerful source of enslavement at work here - namely Delius's to Wagner. The debt is there for all to hear, imperfectly assimilated but with enough of Delius's own voice making its presence felt. It's an uneasy mix; a lot of the music is like a long, slow, soft landing, and for all its abundance of melodic line there's not much in the way of memorable melody. The slaves' choruses often seem on the brink of turning into a sort of Ol' Man River generic, and there is a sadly homogenised tribute to Tristan und Isolde that kicks off the heroine Palmyra's lament over the dying Koanga. Things hot up in the Act III voodoo sacrifice and there is a gaudy climax of hope and optimism, but the work as a whole doesn't really flow.

The director Helena Kaut-Howson, keen to assert Koanga's slavery agenda, has made some changes in a work already much tinkered with over the years. The prologue and epilogue are given contemporary relevance with a gaggle of really annoying schoolgirls doing their slavery module in a museum of slavery - it made sense in this context despite the fact that hardly a word of the specially adapted libretto could be heard. Another more lurid bit of directorial hijacking - a quartet of dancers emoting their socks off in an everyone-getting-a-go, empowering sort of way - was plain ghastly.

The two leads were strongly cast and did an impressive job in bringing Koanga to life. Alison Buchanan gave depth and involvement to the role of Palmyra, the mixed-race slave girl who falls in love with Koanga. As the voodoo prince from a far-off land, Leonard Rose had presence and authority to spare, and managed the role's terrifyingly high baritone range without too much strain. In the smaller roles, Aris Nadirian and Adrian Dwyer were suitably whip-cracking and sadistic as the estate owner and his overseer. The chorus of rather robust-looking slaves made a powerful and haunting contribution, although some of their choreographed movement veered alarmingly close to Black and White Minstrels. With so many people to move around the stage, it was hardly surprising that the staging was functional and rather static, and Delius's music needs a fatter, lusher sound than the Aurelian Ensemble could provide, but under their conductor Martin André, it got the general feel of the score's steamy romance.

Rapturous lyricism in the plantation

From The Daily Telegraph - 20/04/2007
Features: The Arts:

By Rupert Christiansen




ALTHOUGH only the most fanatic of Delius's admirers would make great claims for any of his six operas - all of them suffer from turgid librettos and a lack of basic theatrical backbone - their alluring late-Romantic musical charm means that they won't quite lie down and die.

At Sadler's Wells, Koanga has been revived by Pegasus Opera 35 years after its last performance there. Composed in 1895-7, a decade after Delius's stint managing a Floridan orange grove, it tells a creakingly melodramatic tale in which the titular African prince, sold into slavery and transported to a Southern plantation, turns to voodoo in order to revenge himself on his masters after his wife is abducted.

Pious claims of relevance to the bicentenary of the slave-trade abolition aside, it really is a load of old hooey, full of dire racial stereotypes and lacking in any real humanity. Helena Kaut-Howson's production, unsuggestively set within the tight frame of a white box, does it few favours. The approach is stiff and cautious, and the opera remains an inert picturesque pageant rather than animated drama.

But once past its dragging first act, Koanga does offer some irresistibly rapturous lyricism. The idiom is French Wagnerian, richly coloured, harmonically dense and emotionally melancholy (the heroine Palmyra kills herself with an unmistakable nod to Isolde's "Liebestod''), but sprinkled and leavened with the supple rhythms and melodic grace of authentic plantation songs and dances. If only the voices weren't so frequently drowned out - a compositional shortcoming exacerbated by Sadler's Wells' ungrateful acoustic and the absence of surtitles.

Pegasus Opera is a company that operates a policy of positive discrimination in favour of black singers. As Koanga himself, Canadian baritone Leonard Rowe sang with dignity and poise, at his best in his impassioned outpouring at the climax of the second act and the voodoo incantations of the third. Alison Buchanan was over-stretched by the vocal demands presented by Palmyra - a role that Leontyne Price would have graced - but she is an attractive performer and a sensitive musician. Adrian Dwyer and Aris Nadirian gamely played the villains, and the amateur chorus was well drilled and vivacious.

But it's in the pit rather than on stage that Koanga springs to life. Sympathetically conducted by Martin André, the orchestra relished Delius's sumptuous scoring and painted some lushly evocative mood music.

Feature on Delius' KOANGA as it relates to black audiences
  (The Voice, April 13, 2007)

It sounds like a cliched debate, but it seems that it's still relevant today. The question is: Why don't black people like opera?

This week, as Pegasus Opera Company gears up to present their latest work, Koanga at Sadler's Wells, the company's founder and Artistic Director, Lloyd Newton, is urging black audiences to claim this opera as theirs.  Founded in 1992, Pegasus is a well-respected touring opera company, which aims to demystify opera by making it accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

Still, Newton feels that black people just aren't taking enough interest and they should “ particularly in Koanga, which he tells us more about.  Koanga is about an African prince who's caught up in the slave trade. He's taken to England to work on the plantation, but he refuses to work because he's a prince. But he's tempted into work by being offered the plantation owner's daughter to marry.

He agrees to work, but it all takes a nasty turn. So as well as being about slavery, it's also about love, betrayal, treachery and much more. But of course, the play's subject matter commemorates the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, which is important.

And it's great that it will be running at Sadler's Wells, which is a very prestigious venue. The music in it is wonderful and the cast is 95% black, which is something you don't see very often!

Newton reflects on the growth and development of Pegasus over the company's 15-year history.

We started out doing educational work and we've gone on to do national tours.

We've been from the Bloomsbury Theatre to Hackney Empire to the Barbican and now we're at Sadler's Wells. So we really have grown and I think black people need to claim this production in particular.


Evidently, Newton doesn't feel that black people are claiming opera. He feels that this is because black people don't often know when such works are showing.

I went to Sadler's Wells earlier this year to see Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake and I couldn't see one black person in the audience.

I do believe that many black people enjoy opera. I've got many black friends who enjoy it. But I don't think it's marketed enough to us. That's why I'm so keen to stress that black people need to claim this particular opera because it's theirs. It's not Mozart or Puccini or Verdi “ it's not an opera that deals with European history. It's about black people“ our history. And it's a major production with a great orchestra and some fantastic singers.

But as I say, I think the major problem is with marketing. If black people know about these productions, I believe they will go.

Well, you've read it here! But apparently, not all media institutions are as keen to promote opera.

I've tried to approach radio stations like Choice FM or Kiss, in a bid to get them to promote us, and been told it doesn't fit their remit because it's not R'n'B-driven.

As far as I'm concerned, if there's something going on that's about us and our history, it should be marketed to us in the places or on the stations that we listen to.

But perhaps this is the problem. Though it's without a doubt wrong to suggest that black people only listen to hip-hop, R'n'B or reggae, perhaps there is an issue with our familiarity “ or lack of “ with opera. Perhaps the majority of young black children aren't growing up listening to the symphonies of Beethoven or other classical composers.

Or maybe the old fashioned notion of opera being an 'elitist' thing isn't far off the mark. Perhaps it is only upper and middle class people that are interested. Newton has heard it all before, but he disputes all of the excuses.


I think some black people find the musical element of opera inaccessible because they think it's not theirs and that's nonsense.

Music is music “ it's universal. I was in New York last year at an opera by a company called Opera Noire (led by African American singers) and the amount of black people coming to see it was incredible. There were all these black people looking sharp and looking good and it was a wonderful sight.

And as for the elitist idea, Opera Noire's production wasn't high-brow. Black people from all walks of life come out to enjoy their shows.

You only have to look at our history and all that we've had to do to survive. Black people can take on any art for and excel “ any one. This is not the white man's problem. This is our problem and we need to take the initiative to claim these productions and not tell ourselves opera isn't for us. It's a wonderful art form everybody can enjoy.

Koanga is at Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1

from April 12 to 14.

Published: 13 April 2007


Sadler's Wells, London: 12,13,14 April 2007
3 stars
(credit: Alastair Muir)
Multicultural opera company Pegasus marks the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery with Delius' criminally neglected opera Koanga, set in the plantations and swamps of Louisiana.

Its absence from this, or any other British stage, for 35 years make this a timely as well as topical revival and nothing short of a must-see event.

Sadly, the four performance run at Sadlers Wells is all too short.

Delius was the most cosmopolitan of Englishmen, hailing from Yorkshire and living variously in Florida, Germany, Norway and France. Along the way, he picked up many influences, including the song of black plantation workers in the southern states of America, the harmonies of Edvard Grieg and the verismo style of contemporaries such as Mascagni and Puccini. The most obvious early influence was the God of Bayreuth and Koanga has some very Wagnerian-sounding chords, almost breaking into The Ride of the Valkyries towards the end of Act Two.

Koanga's dramatic structure lurches and jerks. It is a romanticised tale of plantation owners and rebellious slaves, of the human spirit transcending inhuman conditions. To many, the only familiar part is the exuberant dance sequence La Calinda, the culmination of the wedding between the eponymous Prince/Voodoo Priest and the lovely Palmyra, which stands alone as a concert piece although itself too seldom programmed.

Martin Andre's small orchestra can't produce as full a sound as Delius' rich lush score deserves although it grows stronger as the evening progresses, with some lovely brass playing in the final act. The Act One quintet gels, with some fine work from the principals and strong choral backing, but overall the singing is variable, with a mature vibrato-laden Palmyra from Alison Buchanan and stiff Koanga from Leonard Rowe.

If the singing leaves something to be desired, the acting is worse. There's some amateurish chorus work, a less than menacing overseer (Adrian Dwyer) and two slaveowner's henchmen straight out of the pirate scenes in Peter Pan. Director Helena Kaut-Howson makes the mistake of not trusting the composer's musical interludes. They may be slightly long (certainly for the simple staging here) but they are not helped by the over-active quartet of dancers preventing any sense of reflection, and the sound of the dry ice machine pumping out clouds of unnecessary stage mist mars the final orchestral sweep.

The transposition of the brief Prologue and Epilogue, from a plantation verandah to a museum with a group of present-day schoolgirls eager to learn about their heritage, is a nice touch but a piece of inspiration that is all too rare in Kaut-Howson's staging.

Whatever the weaknesses of the production, we have a great deal to be grateful to Pegasus for, in allowing us to hear Delius' glorious score in its proper context. It would be nice to think that this production will bring about a renaissance for this son of Bradford and the major companies will take up the lead. Last year, English National Opera produced Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love and it's time they did the same for this more deserving work.

- Simon Thomas

From The Guardian - 14/04/2007
Guardian Review Pages
George Hall

Hearing the voices of African-American workers singing on a Florida orange plantation in the 1880s proved to be one of the crucial experiences of Delius's life, giving him a feeling for lush harmony and freed-up rhythm that would shape the best of his own music. The history of the workers' forebears as slaves also inspired his opera Koanga, though Delius's lack of practical experience in the genre - and arguably his limited aptitude for it - have always mitigated against its success.
The libretto - partly Delius's own, but revised by numerous hands since the 1904 premiere, and adapted further by the playwright Olwen Wymark for this revival by Pegasus Opera - tells of an African prince brought as a slave to a Louisiana plantation ruled with a rod of iron by Martinez and his brutal henchman Perez. But even they cannot break Koanga's spirit, so they marry him off to the slave Palmyra, herself Martinez's mixed-race daughter. Koanga eventually kills Perez, but is himself killed for his act of rebellion.
A composer with a surer understanding of the stage could have made more of this than Delius does. There is a fatal lack of pace, with far too much slow music, much of it sounding like badly remembered Wagner. But under Martin Andre's baton, the chorus boasts some of the best writing in the piece, while the two leads - Alison Buchanan's dignified Palmyra and Leonard Rowe's regal Koanga - impress in roles that ideally require Wagnerian voices. As Martinez and Perez, Aris Nadirian's trenchant bass and Adrian Dwyer's nasal tenor fit the bill nicely.

Helena Kaut-Howson's production is at its most persuasive when sticking to basics; the regular interventions of a quartet of dancers seem surplus to requirements. But the show's chief problems aren't Pegasus's fault so much as Delius's.

Delius: Koanga  April 12 2007, First night impressions by Colin Seamarks

Koanga in a production by the Pegasus Opera Company at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London [for the uninitiated, such as overseas readers, formerly the home of Sadler's Wells opera, which became the English National Opera after its move to the Coliseum] is a wonderful piece of enterprise from a very brave company.  The first night audience was large, but there were a few empty seats.  It was also unusual and pleasing to see so many black people attending a ˜classical' music event in London.
One odd thing, however, was that the broadcast publicity had the production as being ˜all black'.  This seemed a bit odd if some of the characters were white, but then the message in the programme from Lloyd Newton, founder and artistic director of the company, included the words: ˜Pegasus seeks to break down stereotypical racial casting, to allow singers of all ethnic backgrounds an opportunity to play roles for which they not normally be cast.'  That explains it then, except that in this production black people were played by black singers and white people by white singers, although perhaps Aris Naridian, an Iranian born of Armenian parents, might be a borderline case.
It looked lovely.  Helena Kaut-Howson's production with quite simple but effective sets by Kenny Miller, who also designed the costumes, frequently had the appearance of a work-of-art you might want to keep.  As an overall experience, however, the first half (there was one interval, after Act 2) came across as rather dreary, with a considerable lack of the dramatic cut-and-thrust that can make opera such an exciting all round experience.  The third act, however, was a different matter. Everything seemed to move up a few notches and some of the music was fabulously beautiful, very much helped by the Aurelian Ensemble under Martin Andre' in the pit, and how nice to find that very fine violinist, Keith Gurry, recently retired from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, leading the second violins.
The programme made something of the inadequacies of the libretto, and this was a revised version by Douglas Craig and Andrew Page.  Unfortunately, however this mattered little, as diction, on the whole, was so poor that it was not possible to hear the words.  There were notable exceptions in Leonard Rowe (Koanga) and, interestingly, the chorus, despite one offstage wobble.  Ironically, people following the signed version at the Saturday matinee would probably understand the most.
One problem with the work is that trained singers are not necessarily good dancers, and the dancing ranged from the quite imaginative and impressive to the untidy.  The ˜frantic' dance of Act 3 Scene 1, which the synopsis promised, was a real let down.
On this evidence, was it worth doing, and is the opera unjustly neglected, deserving a place in the standard repertory? The answer to the first question is a definite yes, even if only as a curiosity, but as an overall operatic experience it lacks something.  It was not long enough to be boring, but, on the other hand, it did not feel like a full-blown satisfying experience at the end. 

Delius' KOANGA:

First night impressions by Terry Sanderson (April 12)

The production is very interesting and spirited, with a local black community choir singing the chorus parts (very well).

The only change from the original is that the prologue and epilogue are now set in modern times in a museum, where students are looking at an exhibition about slavery. There they meet the curator who replaces Uncle Joe. At the end, instead of flowery words about the bright May morning, there is a hope that such things will never happen again.

The soloists are very good, but the orchestral reduction is a bit telling “ some of the lushness of the music is lost, and the orchestra itself is not top notch, unfortunately.

All the same, I found it a very moving experience. It is obviously a project that the black community has taken to its heart, and I have never seen so many black people at an opera before.

Second night impressions by Terry Sanderson (April 13)

I went again to the second performance of Koanga at Sadler's Wells and was astonished at the improvement. It was like watching a completely different production.

The orchestra seems to have found its stride and was playing far better on the second night (perhaps the conductor had given the players a roasting, which they would have deserved).

The technical side was better (on the second night there were projections of images on to a screen to cover the musical interludes, whereas on the first night we had been confronted with a blank screen, unexplained. The smoke machine had also been very intrusive with loud hissing noises over the magical final orchestral interlude).

Everyone seemed more confident and relaxed and it all seemed to hang together better. Perhaps it was my position in the auditorium “ I was further forward on the second night and in sight of the orchestra.

What a shame it was the first night that the critics saw.


Second night impressions by John Skuse

Newspaper reviews, I think you may have read, made some good points about the
production which seemed to revolve around the idea that something else was
needed apart from the music and the singing. The four dancers contorting
around the stage at every available opportunity worked extremely hard but to
no apparent purpose. As for dry ice poring forth. Why? Why? Why? It simply
is such a hackneyed idea that producers using such a device should be
pensioned off! (imho)

I thought the orchestra played very well at the second performance and fully
deserved their applause at the conclusion. The soloists singing the parts of
Koanga and Palmyra coped well given all the distractions surrounding them. I
could continue with comments about the supporting artists but I would be
repeating what you have already read.

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