In 1932, a crowd of 10,000 crammed into a baseball stadium to watch the world premiere of a contemporary opera. They witnessed a three-act performance that included a 200-person chorus, an epic story stretching from pre-colonial West Africa to then-contemporary Harlem, a live elephant, and a set that featured a waterfall on stage. The work in question was Tom-Tom, a monumental music drama by Shirley Graham Du Bois. Despite the extraordinary turnout and the riveting spectacle, the work has not been produced since its initial run, and all that survives of the score is an incomplete piano-vocal reduction.
On April 4, the American Modern Opera Company will present a selection of excerpts from this fascinating work at National Sawdust, before a discussion of the work’s potential and problems spearheaded by the scholar and Yale doctoral candidate Lucy M. Caplan with bass-baritone Davóne Tines, pianist Kyle Walker, and ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley. In a recent interview, Caplan spoke about her work, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and the challenges that Tom-Tom presents to a contemporary opera company. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Before we get to talking about Tom-Tom itself, could you give us a little background on your work more generally?
LUCY M. CAPLAN: Sure! I’m currently — though not for very much longer, hopefully! — a grad student at Yale, working on a dissertation about the history of African American opera, looking at composers, performers, and institutions in the vibrant culture that existed in the early twentieth century. So this is really before things like Porgy and Bess or Marian Anderson; I’m focusing on this rich body of work and the at the time celebrated artists who brought it to life.
So given how vibrant this scene was at the time, how did these works come to be pushed out of historical memory? I guess the blunt version of this question is: why haven’t we heard about these pieces and artists?
I think, in answering this question, it’s important to ask: who is the “we” here? That’s an important question to ask, because often the answer is that it just means white Americans who, quite frankly, haven’t sought this material out, or haven’t been paying attention to it in any meaningful way.
Because if you look in the Black press at the time, these shows are heavily documented, there’s a lot of very thorough coverage. So this information is there, and in many cases it’s not even particularly difficult to find. It really is a matter of what you choose to look for. It’s a choice not to pay attention, it’s a choice for white people in positions of power not to seek out this repertoire and this history. And in large part these sources really haven’t been subject to academic inquiry beyond mere documentation; there just hasn’t been any curiosity about them from the usually white people with the resources to do this work.
And there are performing organizations that are presenting this repertoire! The Chicago Sinfonietta comes to mind, as does OperaCréole down in New Orleans. But many of these organizations lack high-level institutional support; to find people doing this work, you really have to go to the margins of classical music performing spaces.
With that general milieu laid out, let’s zoom in to talk about Shirley Graham Du Bois herself. Could you give us an overview for those who aren’t familiar with her?
Well, it’s hard to give an overview, because her career was so varied. She was the child of a minister, so she moved around a lot, and her interest in music grows both out of the Black church tradition and out of classical conservatory training. She married and had two kids before divorcing her first husband, which was already unusual for a woman in her position in that time. And then she goes to Paris, where she meets all of these influential figures from the West African diaspora.
She begins to turn towards politics in the 1940s, especially after her son dies in a hospital—he was serving in the army, and she believed that he died essentially because of racism on the part of the medical staff, so that really pushes her into advocacy. Then in the 1950s, she marries W.E.B. Du Bois—I don’t like to lead with that, because she’s so much more than just his wife, but there’s really no getting around that marrying him catapults her into the most elite circles of African American activists and intellectuals. Ultimately, they move to Ghana together, and she’s involved in a lot of anti-colonialist activism and even a stint in Ghanaian TV programming.
In terms of her compositional output, is Tom-Tom the first time she’d tackled a work on that scale?
It’s absolutely the first time she wrote anything on that scale. She’d written quite a few shorter musical works, as well as several plays – one of which became the basis for Tom-Tom – but nothing like a three-act opera. She only had three months to write it…
Yes! She was at Oberlin, and she took a semester off and went to a boarding house in Cleveland and wrote the entire thing. And you can kind of tell that she’d never done anything like this before—which isn’t to say anything against it on an aesthetic level, but you can see that she’s figuring some things out as she goes along. And there’s a lot of music that’s included from other sources, whether that’s transcriptions and arrangements of spirituals or a kind of filtered, imagined version of West African drumming. In some ways, she’s more of a collector or a curator; it’s a very different approach to composition than the auteur/sole genius model.
That sounds like it could produce a very heterogeneous score.
Yes, it’s very varied, stylistically. Act I, as I said, is very rhythmic, this kind of imagined version of West African drumming traditions. And then Act II is based primarily around transcriptions of spirituals, and Act III is full of early jazz, as well as more atmospheric urban sounds like taxi horns.
So how did you first encounter this work?
I first ran into it when I was an undergrad looking for something to write a paper about, as you do in your junior year. It’s about 350 pages; Acts I and II are in pretty good shape, but Act III is rough—there are a lot of missing passages, and there are other sections where she wrote out two versions and it’s not clear which one she decided on using in the end.
There are some orchestration cues in the piano-vocal, and we have the program from the performance as well as photos and reviews in various newspapers. So that means that we actually do know quite a lot about what the original performance looked like, but I don’t think a final draft of the score ever existed.
It definitely sounds like there are musical obstacles to mounting a full new production of this work. Are there other challenges—in terms of how the racial subject matter is handled, say?
Unfortunately, yeah. The biggest challenge is really the work’s depiction of Africa as this dark, violent, primitive place. These are very stereotypical images of African primitivism, and they’re just not accurate in any way, not the least of which is that the work treats Africa as a single undifferentiated country instead of a continent that’s home to really breathtaking diversity. You can’t just put that on stage with no commentary—probably there’s a way to handle it with staging or program notes or something, but it definitely needs to be handled delicately and proactively.
The other big hurdle is the sheer scale of the work. It was enormous and expensive: there was a 200-person chorus in addition to, from what we can tell, a very large percussion section; there was a live elephant at one point, and even a waterfall. So you want to give it the scale and vision that Graham originally had, but you also want it to be feasible for a modern opera company to do without breaking the bank, and that’s a tricky thing to manage.
Do you have thoughts on how white people in the classical music world can help redress the erasure of all of these works by African American artists?
I think the most important thing is for white people in positions of power to relinquish that power. Put people of color in charge, and listen to what they have to say. There’s already so much brilliance out there, there are so many just stunning artists and thinkers out there right now, and we really just need to get out of the way and create pathways for that brilliance. Their voices need to be at the center of this, not ours.
When it comes to institutions, like the Metropolitan Opera, that do have the resources where they could do something like Tom-Tom, the people in positions of power, realistically, are going to be mostly or even exclusively white, whereas institutions that are PoC-led tend to have this legacy of underfunding—they tend to not really have the kind of accumulated resources that white-led institutions have. So this is an opportunity, I think, for institutions that do have those kinds of accumulated resources to really share those resources, in partnership with an organization that hasn’t had access to them. I think that would be a very powerful, important thing.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.