Songs of Love and Justice

New Portland Opera production celebrates Black composers

Damien Geter, photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Damien Geter, curator of Portland Opera’s ‘Journeys to Justice’ program. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

When Portland Opera singers and staff began to discuss Journeys to Justice, a 75-minute program of art songs and opera about the American Black experience, they pleaded with Damien Geter to add to the list his “The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with Police.”

“I would never program my own pieces,” said Geter, who is artistic advisor of Portland Opera since July, 2020. “But they wanted it.”

And so they got it. As will opera listeners.

The program will begin streaming at 7:30 p.m. April 16 and is available until May 31. You can purchase a digital pass through Portland Opera, at a $50 suggested price, though there’s a “Pay What You will Option” for as little as $5.  A ticket allows access to all the Zoom events mentioned below.

Though each of the six pieces is contemporary —  written in the late 20th and early 21st centuries — Geter chose somewhat established works as well as freshly minted ones. The better known are the lyrical “Songs of Love and Justice” by prolific composer Dr. Adolphus Hailstork set to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, and “Your Daddy’s Son” from the 1996 musical Ragtime, which Stephen Flaherty composed with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics.

Expect plenty of up-to-the-minute content, including Jasmine Barnes’ 2018 Songs for the African Violet, a song cycle about Black women’s resilience. Philadelphia-based soprano Leah Hawkins, praised for her show-stopping “Strawberry Woman” cameo in The Met’s recent Porgy and Bess, will sing. Portland Opera’s Resident Artists will perform the other pieces. This season’s crop includes Lynnesha Crump, Jasmine Johnson, David Morgans Sanchez, Michael Parham and Edwin Jhamal Davis. Ithica Tell will narrate.

Soprano Leah Hawkins. Photo by Arielle Doneson.
Soprano Leah Hawkins. Photo by Arielle Doneson.

Two Black Churches, composed by Shawn Okpebholo, who combines gospel and contemporary art-song styles in his opera, is about the deadly white supremacist hate crimes perpetrated against two Southern churches: the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four girls were killed in 1963, and a half-century later in 2015,  Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where a shooter killed nine parishioners. Dudley Randall‘s poem provides text for the 2020 opera’s first movement, “Ballad of Birmingham.” Text for “The Rain,” the opera’s second piece, is by Marcus Amaker, Charleston’s poet laureate.

Night Trip portrays a gas-station stop when the Black family travels through Jim Crow America. Carlos Simon composed the chamber opera with Sandra Seaton’s libretto. The Washington Post called Night Trip, staged in 2020 at the Kennedy Center, “seamless” — describing  it as “a lyrical sweep threaded with big-band jazz and the blues, paired with Seaton’s candid, vernacular text gradually revealing dramatic and poetic substance.”

Lance Inouye will conduct the evening’s limited orchestration. Chip Miller, associate artistic director for Portland Center Stage, will direct. Geter will interview the composers in a stream available April 10 on Opera Onscreen.

Because much of the music will be new to listeners, Portland Opera is going all-out with educational accompaniments. A post-show conversation will at 9 p.m. April 16 via Zoom. A panel, the 60-minute “Artistic Insights: Curating Songs of Love and Justice,” will happen via Zoom at noon April 6 with PO’s Geter, Journeys to Justice director Miller, and Derrell Acon of the Black Opera Alliance in conversation.

Journeys to Justice stage director Chip Miller. Photo courtesy of Portland Opera.
Journeys to Justice’ stage director Chip Miller. Photo courtesy of Portland Opera.

Another hourlong panel, “You are Here: Our Journey to Justice in PDX,” will follow at noon April 7 via Zoom. This panel intends to put the opera’s pieces into historical perspective, and discuss the origins of white supremacy, Oregon’s racist past and current racism. Panelists are Eliza Canty Jones of the Oregon Historical Society and Dr. Carmen Thompson, a visiting scholar in Portland State University’s Black Studies Department. PSU’s Leroy Bynum will moderate. All events are open to the public but you have to RSVP for the links: eventRSVP@portlandopera.com.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published photographer and poet, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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