Opera Society Pulls Surprise With Premiere of Delius' Work


Washington Star 12-13-70

This time, I think the Opera Society of Washington has surprised even itself with its own enterprise and audacity.
The 1970-71 season was supposed to open with Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts," surely a new enough novelty. But long after the opera had been publicly announced, some difficulties with the composer developed. They were serious enough to cause the production to be abandoned.

What to do?

Merely come up with the first American performance of an opera written in the 1890's on certain aspects of slavery in the South by a British-born composer who migrated to Florida, studied music in Germany, was strongly influenced by Norwegian music, and lived in France for most of his life.

The name of the opera is "Koanga;" the name of the composer is Frederick Delius.

"Koanga" was first performed in the Municipal Theater of Elberfeld, Germany on Mar. 20, 1903. It was not a smash hit although it was received respectfully.

It did not reach England until Sir Thomas Beecham, (Delius's most active propagandist since shortly after the turn of the 20th century) put it on at Covent Garden on Sept. 23, 1935. The Beecham production, too failed to set the world on fire.

'Koanga' Returns

Now, 75 years after Delius started composing it, "Koanga" comes back to the country to which it owes its inspiration.  Has the opera society rediscovered a forgotten masterpiece or exhumed an interesting corpse? We'll know next Friday when the curtain falls at Lisner Auditorium.

Delius (baptized Fritz Albeit Theodor) was born in Bradford, Eng. Jan, 29, 1862, the son of a tyrannical but eminently successful German emigre engaged in the wool business. After several unsuccessful attempts to get the young man into the family business, Julius Delius and his son parted.

Through some species of magic, Fritz and a Bradford friend of his persuaded their respective parents to buy them an orange grove in northeastern Florida, and the two prospective orange-growers left England for America in March, 1884.  Their property was located on the banks of the St. Johns River, between Picolata and Riverdale, and went by the imposing name of Solano Grove.

Delius was a violinist, unschooled in the subtleties of composition at that time. Fortunately, he met one Thomas F. Ward, organist of a Catholic church in Brooklyn, timing a visit to Jacksonville and persuaded him to join him at Solano Grove. Ward, who was in the South for his health, spent some months initiating his younger friend into the mysteries of harmony and counterpoint.

Ward returned to Jacksonville in the fall of 1884, leaving Delius in unhappy solitude at Solano Grove. Providentially, Delius' brother Ernest showed up in November and was persuaded to stay on to protect the family interest in the property while Delius, early in 1885, moved to Jacksonville and set himself up (rather unsuccessfully) as a teacher of violin.  Actually, he scratched out a living as a singer, relying heavily on a job in a local synagogue, Temple Ahavath Chesed.

The Jacksonville episode was shortlived. Delius answered an advertisement for a music teacher in the Roanoke Female College (a finishing school for young Baptist misses in Danville, Va.) and got the job. He was a success in the ugly little border tobacco town, so much so that the head of the music department in the college, Robert S. Phifer, undertook to persuade papa Delius back in Bradford that he should let Fritz go to Leipzig to study music seriously. To Delius's astonishment, papa agreed.

Delius returned to America once more in 1897 with a Norwegian friend, visiting Danville, Jacksonville and ultimately to Solano Grove.  Although the place was badly run down, it still attracted him, and he spent almost five months there before going back to France permanently. In France, he became Frederick Delius, an ex­iled, misunderstood, neglected English composer.

American culture made a deep impression on Delius although he was in this country for only a short time, and his creative life was particularly haunted by the poetry of Walt Whitman and the exotic music of the blacks he listened to with such amazed fascination at Solano Grove, Jacksonville and Danville.

Third Opera

"Koanga" was Delius's thud opera. First came "Irmelin" (1890-92) based on a medieval legend, a work which was not performed until May of 1953.   Then came "The Magic Fountain" (1893-95), a piece set in Florida with Indian protagonists said by Sir Thomas to be "a work of unusual interest and merit" which has never been produced. It was actually scheduled for production at Weimar in 1895, but it was withdrawn by the composer to an extraordinary act of self-abnegation after he had begun work on "Koanga."

The plot of "Koanga' comes front George Washington Cable's rather mannered novel of life among the New Orleans Creoles and blacks called "The Grandissimes."  The story as the opera tells it deals with Koanga (called Bras-Coup in the novel), an African prince who refuses to work in the Louisiana cane fields because of his royal lineage. When the whip fails, the overseers resort to trickery, trying to tempt him with a beautiful slave girl, Palmyra. But Palmyra respects Koanga's African heritage, and instead, he awakens her pride in being black and beautiful.

Palmyra decides to marry Koanga on her master's plantation, and he promises to work for her sake because be loves her. At the wedding, trouble ensues when a white man, attempting to exercise the ancient "droit du seigneur," is killed by Koanga, who then flees to the depths of the neighboring bayous.

From his hiding place, Koanga persuades other blacks to join him in the freedom of the swamps. But he is finally captured by a white posse, dragged back to the plantation, and whipped to death.

It remains to be seen what director Frank Corsaro (sometimes called "opera's most controversial director"), sculptor Ronald Chase, lighting designer Nationale Porcher, conductor Paul Callaway and a cast of young, gifted, mostly black singers can accomplish in a mixed-media production that sounds much like last season's successful "Turn of the Screw."