He wrote of little brown babies and a man who had his dream. He revealed the mask worn by many and penned an ode to Ethiopia.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, a native Daytonian and the first black American to gain national prominence as a poet, ignited the literary world with his turn-of-the-century works and now has inspired two contemporary university professors to celebrate his poetry with operatic splendor.
"Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul;
So begins the new opera, with stanzas from "Ode to
Ethiopia" and "Compensation," which give "a sense of
striving for that which is worthwhile," says the librettist.
Herbert Woodward Martin, English professor and poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton, selected the 12 poems to be included in the opera and wrote the libretto. Dialogue is delivered in between the poems to provide a narrative thread, and it links the works to Dunbar's life, calling attention to the guidance offered by his parents, his love for his wife, Alice, and the tragedy of his death at the age of 33 in 1906. "The poetry is extraordinarily singable. There's an inordinate amount of music already in the poems," Martin says. He calls the opera "charming and quite delightful. I think it's accessible, that it's a cohesive piece that makes sense right away."
The opera's composer is Adolphus Hailstork, professor of composition at Norfolk State University. "When I discovered Dunbar's work, I realized that he was my artistic ancestor, because I write music that reflects a double cultural experience, that of my standard European-oriented education and that of my ethnic heritage." Hailstork blended the two influences in the opera, using standard harmonic and melodic styles for some pieces while choosing a musical style reflective of African-American blues and gospel in others.
"A Love Letter" and "A Frolic" are
light-hearted poems written in African-American dialect, the form that
brought Dunbar his initial fame. They set up a courtship theme that
dominates the middle of the production and are followed by two serious and
heartfelt love lyrics written in standard English, "The
Awakening" and "Thou Art My Lute."
"Little Brown Baby," one of Dunbar's best-known dialect
poems, reintroduces a playful note to the opera, portraying a father
alternately teasing and cuddling his young son, "pappy's pa'dner an'
playmate an' joy" for whom he wishes "ease an cleah skies."
Tender teasing quickly gives way to good-hearted goading in "A
Negro Love Song" for the two men in the cast and nosy inquisitiveness
in "Discovered" for the two women. The poems are energetic and
humorous and showcase Dunbar's genius for relating human nature.
"Dunbar's characters are all different, they all have an
individuality that comes across as being real and vibrant," Martin
"What we tried to do is suggest that there is a kind of common pursuit and struggle that's related to everyone's life," Martin says. "We wanted to capture the atmosphere and the tone of Dunbar's reaction to the world around him."
"Accountability" sets the stage for the reverent passion of "A Hymn" and "An Ante-Bellum Sermon," leading to the prophetic "He Had His Dream." At the end, the singers offer a reprise of "Ode to Ethiopia" and "Compensation," strong voices and lyrics interwoven in a powerful wall of sound that begins at the stage and rolls outward, embracing the audience.
"Because I had loved so deeply,
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