Lifting their Voices

Paying tribute to America’s first black opera

African American opera company
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

AUDIO: Hear music from The Doctor of Alcantara and the Morgan State University Choir

In 1873, just a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, a group of African American singers debuted as the capital's first opera company.

Organized as the Colored American Opera Company, the troupe's beginnings are rooted in Saint Augustine Roman Catholic Church, a 150-year-old black Catholic congregation that remains an influential parish in the city today. The church choir, responding to the need to raise money for a new building and school, created the opera company, which produced and toured The Doctor of Alcantara, a popular operetta of the times. The endeavor surprised music lovers and raised thousands of dollars.

Now, the history and music of the long-forgotten company have been resurrected by the Music Center at Strathmore, a concert hall just outside the District of Columbia in Bethesda, Maryland. Through narration, song and an operatic concert performance Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company, an original Strathmore production that premieres February 16, tells the heroic story of those early singers.

"Preserving and presenting local music is an important goal of Strathmore," says the center's artistic director, Shelley Brown, who launched the research that culminated in the production. She had stumbled on a mention of a "colored" opera company while researching the area's musical history.

"I was most surprised that Washington's first opera company was African American," Brown says. "It's amazing that this particular chapter has not been told."

The opera company, which was also the first black opera in the country, started as a "capital campaign," Brown reiterates. In the early post–Civil War years, it was not unusual for blacks, who had little or no capital, to raise their voices in song to raise money for their nascent institutions. One of the earliest groups were the Jubilee singers, organized in 1871 by a music professor at the financially fledging Fisk University in Nashville. Performing spirituals and work songs that had sustained them in slavery, the small ensemble toured the United States and England, performing for Queen Victoria, and earned enough money to construct the college's first permanent building. Acknowledging that heritage, Strathmore has commissioned the Morgan State University Choir, celebrated for its preservation of Negro spirituals, to perform such traditional songs as "Steal Away," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" for the Free to Sing production.  Saint Augustine's historic choir, however, performed mainly classical sacred music.

At the time the choir established the opera company, blacks in the capital had been on a quest for knowledge and culture for decades. In 1807 three former slaves who had earned their freedom started the first school for free blacks in the District. The school succumbed to hard times but had paved the way for others, black and white, to establish similar institutions. In 1858, a group of free black Catholics founded Blessed Martin de Porres Chapel, a school and parish. It would eventually change its name to Saint Augustine.

Around 1868, John Esputa, a white United States Marine Band musician and teacher, who had mentored a young John Philip Sousa, became the director of the Saint Augustine choir. Under his guidance, the singers began to receive much local acclaim.

Sometime in the next few years (dates vary from 1869 to 1872), Esputa organized the church's most talented singers as the core of the Colored American Opera Company and began rehearsing what would be their only production, The Doctor of Alcantara. The light opera, composed by Julius Eichberg in 1862, was sung in English and replete with comic mishaps surrounding two thwarted young lovers. A staple in the repertory of traveling opera companies for many years, it was nearly forgotten when Gilbert and Sullivan began turning out their wildly popular operettas in the mid 1870s.

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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