Travel in My Own Backyard - Back in Cincinnati Just in Time for the Opera! (travels with my Uke)
Updated: May 27
More than 50 years ago, around 1970, I was introduced to the world of opera. I grew up in Evansville, Indiana, but most of my extended family lived in Kentucky. Every summer, family members had season tickets to the Cincinnati Opera. One summer, I traveled with my aunts and uncle to Cincinnati. In the car, relatives would tell the story we would see that night with great gusto and melodramatic exuberance. My first opera was Carmen - written by a Frenchman (Georges Bizet), it is a story of a young woman who worked in a cigarette factory in Sevilla, Spain, torn between two men who vied for her affection. Before we left Louisville, my grandfather joked that he couldn't imagine why we would want to hear music that "sounded like two polecats in heat"! He chuckled while singing, "Toreador, don't spit on the floor, use the cuspidor, what do you think it's for?" But my grandmother assured me what I was to hear would be beautiful. And, it was.
From 1920-1971, opera was performed at the Cincinnati Zoo. My first opera was at the end of this era, and the only one I saw at the zoo, in an outdoor venue. The Soprano was Shirley Verrett - an renowned African-American singer who had a long and prestigious career. Carmen was the perfect choice for my first opera. It was performed in Cincinnati nearly every year, because the music is exciting and accessible. I can't find a picture of Ms. Verrett in that opera, but here is a picture of her performing in another opera, Sampson and Delilah, around the same era, in the Cincinnati Zoo venue.
I was hooked - in the next few years, I saw La Traviata and La Fille du Regiment with Beverly Sills, Aida with Martina Arroyo, and many other performances featuring world-class singers, this time at the beautiful Opera House.
I loved the pure and beautiful notes, executed with perfection. I loved the stories - some were funny, some were sad, but they were all very dramatic. I adored the sets, with their color and their evocation of Seville, ancient Egypt, turn-of-the-century Paris, or Renaissance Italy. Before I left for college, most of the operas I saw were from the repertoire of European composers who told stories set in European settings. Often those stories highlighted people from struggling classes; the protagonists were usually European. While there were some remarkable singers of color, the roles were by and large not created to tell their stories - and when they tried to tell non-European stories, they often got parts of the culture wrong (for example, Madame Butterfly or Turandot). One exception was Porgy and Bess, composed by George Gershwin in the 1930's, which featured African-American singers and told a distinctly African-American story. I saw a wonderful version of that opera in Cincinnati after I moved back to the area, in the early 2000's. Porgy and Bess has been somewhat controversial for using Gullah dialect, but was well-researched by its non-African-American composers when written in the 1930's. The Gershwin estate requires that it be performed by singers of color, and it has been performed by many renowned singers. But, as people began asking for their own stories to be told in their own voices, the opera remains controversial.
When we were in London earlier this year, we saw La Traviata, one of the standard classic operas. Set in Paris, it tells the story of a courtesan who falls in love with a wealthy heir but is persuaded to leave him to restore his family's good name, without telling him she is dying of TB. The role of Violetta is demanding, and for the production we saw, there were two singers rotating the role. Two world-class singers of color were cast in the role: Angel Blue (who we were lucky to see the night we went), and Pretty Yende. This increase in diversity among singers was not just confined to the opera: we also noticed much more diversity in the Shakespearean casts we saw at the New Globe in London.
In more recent years, operas I saw in Cincinnati started telling more diverse stories. For example, Margaret Garner, an opera whose libretto (words) was written by Toni Morrison, told the story of the slave whose tragic circumstances formed the inspiration for Morrison's book, Beloved. The opera Ainadamar featured the story of a poet who was murdered by Spanish nationalists for leftist philosophy and accusations of homosexuality, and written by an Argentinian composer, performed in Spanish. Although I didn't get a chance to see it, in 2018 Cincinnati premiered Blind Injustice, the story of Ohio exonerees who were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. These are stories with a different point of view, and different musical sensibilities. They also began to create rich interpretive opportunities for more diverse singers.
My aunt and uncle have been season ticket holders for Cincinnati opera performances these past 50 years. This summer, the Cincinnati Opera opened two world premiere operas featuring stories of African-American people. The first, Fierce, was written by an African-American composer. The second, Castor and Patience, features an African-American librettist. Both were commissioned by the Cincinnati opera.
This week, we saw Castor & Patience - a moving and timely story of an African-American family spanning generations. The viewer learns the history of a family whose ancestors scraped their money together after they were freed from slavery to buy land on a coastal island near the Carolinas. The two cousins at the center of the story reveal how part of the family stayed on the island and part of the family left and moved to Rochester, N.Y. It is set during the financial crisis of 2008, where Castor is in desperate financial straits when a balloon payment comes due on his home. He is losing everything. He travels to his cousin, Patience, who never left the island, to ask her to sell part of the family land. Castor expresses his pain and frustration from experiencing so many societal expectations and limitations as an African-American man. In one scene, he sings, "Do you know how many police stopped me on my way driving here? None. But I worried about it the entire way, imagining how I would place my hands on the dashboard in plain view, and speak in just the right tone, and worry about how my son would react." Castor's son also sings of his own exhaustion - at the age of 18 - of navigating controlling his own emotions and worrying about how others might be afraid of him. Both men sing a duet where each of them is literally boxed into a portion of the set. Patience sings about how important the family land is to her - to keep the ancestors with them. In some scenes, we hear the ancestors telling their stories; in others, we hear from the children of each of the cousins. The music was beautiful, the history important, and the experience rich.
In 1971, at the wedding of my aunt and uncle, my Aunt Doll played O Mio Babbino Caro - an aria from an opera by Puccini - on the piano during the wedding ceremony in my grandparents' living room. I was their maid of honor on that day.
Last week, I played the same aria on my ukulele as an anniversary gift, in the same house where the wedding took place 51 years ago. And so, here is my tribute to Cincinnati opera, and my family who introduced me to this international art form! I am delighted that opera continues to evolve, and that the Cincinnati opera company leads the way.