Lifting their Voices

Paying tribute to America's first black opera

Strathmore’s production about the first African American opera company will feature the Morgan State University Choir and director Eric Conway. (Courtesy of Morgan State University Choir)

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The African American company first performed Alcantara on February 3 and 4, 1873 at Lincoln Hall in Washington DC, before an audience of about 1,500 people, a third of them white. "Distinguished people" and "representatives of the musical circles of the city" attended, according to news accounts. The local press hailed the performance as an unexpected achievement: "This is a long, long step in advance of the condition of the race a few short years ago," wrote the Daily National Republican. The company took the show to Philadelphia for three nights and ended the run with two more performances in Washington.

Though critics noted that no one in the company had had formal conservatory training, reviews were generally very positive and in some instances even effusive, especially for the 35-member chorus and soprano Agnes Gray Smallwood. "As for the chorus, it is superior to that of any German or Italian opera heard in this city for years," said the Daily National Republican. A Philadelphia publication concurred with: "We do not exaggerate when we say that this is one of the best choruses we have heard for sometime." The Philadelphia Inquirer singled out Smallwood for "a beautiful ringing soprano-voice, a very easy lyric and dramatic method." Another review praised her "clear, resonant voice of remarkable power."

Overall the venture was declared a "genuine success" by a Washington newspaper. It helped raise about $5,000 for the new building and school, at 15th and M streets in downtown Washington (now the site of the Washington Post newspaper).

Local newspapers continued to report favorably on the Saint Augustine choir into the late 1870s (noting its performances of sacred music by Haydn and Mozart), but the opera company itself seems to have disbanded. In 1878 Esputa moved to Florida for health reasons.

One can't help but wonder what happened to the singers. The cast included soprano Agnes Gray Smallwood, contraltos Lena Miller and Mary A.C. Coakley (a former slave who was a seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln), tenors Henry F. Grant and Richard Tompkins, bass Thomas H. Williams, baritones George Jackson (a Civil War veteran) and William T. Benjamin.

Although much of the story of these gifted singers remains a puzzle, many of the pieces have been recovered, at least enough for Strathmore to re-create the music and history of their remarkable moment of achievement.

Free to Sing: The story of the First African-American Opera Company will be performed February 16, 2008.


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