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South Shore Opera Company offers African Romances

The South Shore Opera Company marks its fifth anniversary with a free program Saturday featuring a one-act opera and a song cycle by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

“Dream Lovers” and “Seven African Romances” will be presented Saturday, June 8, at 7 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center, with Daniel Black conducting new orchestrations by Peter Slavin and Leon Shernoff.

Both Dunbar (1872-1906) and Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) were pioneers in their fields:  with the immense popularity of his poetry, both in black dialect and standard English, Dunbar was the first African American to achieve national prominence as a poet; with the huge success of his choral work, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” the Afro-British Coleridge-Taylor became the first classical composer of evident African descent to achieve wide popularity.  When he toured the U.S. in 1904, he was received at the White House by President Roosevelt.Coleridge-Taylor’s work features the lush, sweeping melodies of the late romantic period; in his day he was called “the black Mahler.”  After hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers on a European tour  and meeting Dunbar during the poet’s tour of England in 1897, the composer began utilizing musical material from Africa, the Caribbean, the Black America, including Spirituals.

“What Brahms has done for Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies,” he said. (At a time when British colonial exploits were at their peak, Coleridge-Taylor was an outspoken proponent of Pan Africanism and a delegate to the first Pan African Congress in London in 1900.)

The composer set seven of Dunbar’s poems to music in 1897, and a year later the two collaborated on “Dream Lovers,” an “operatic romance” featuring a prince from Madagascar.  The short opera is rarely performed today.

Saturday’s performers include Cornelius Johnson, tenor, who’s also artistic director; sopranos Kimberly Jones and Dana Campbell; mezzo-soprano Beena Davis; baritone Antonio Watts; and tenor Jeffrey Burish.

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