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Black cast and director bring revered Black composer’s opera to life

Feb 24, 2022

Composer William Grant Still once said, “I don’t think that it is good for the world of music to have everything come out of the same mold. God didn’t place only roses on earth, or only lilies or only violets. He put flowers of many sorts and many colors here, the beauty of each enhancing that of the others.”

Still may not be as well-known outside the music world as other American composers like George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein, but his talent was on the same level. Known as the “the dean of African American composers,” Still was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, rubbing elbows with the likes of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington. With a career spanning four decades, he composed more than 150 works, including nine operas, five symphonies and four ballets, which often told stories of the African American experience.

A female performer hugs another female performer onstage during their performance.
Chase Sanders and Maisah Outlaw perform as Mary and Aunt Lou in “Highway 1, USA.”Photo by Sarah Slover, Jacobs School of Music

Earlier in February, the Jacobs School of Music paid tribute to this visionary composer with a production of “Highway 1, USA,” an opera created by Still. Performed by a primarily Black cast and directed by Kimille Howard, assistant stage director with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the three-act opera was preceded by “19,” a ballet set to music from Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” and choreographed by Sasha Janes, associate professor of music (ballet) at Jacobs.

Still was the first Black composer to conduct his own work as it was performed by a major American orchestra. Though highly accomplished, his career did not come without the hurdles of racism. He composed music for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, which he could only attend safely with the help of a police escort except on “Negro Day.” He also composed music for many motion pictures in Hollywood, but he resigned before finishing the score for the 1943 film “Stormy Weather,” in protest of 20th Century Fox degrading people of color.

The opportunity to commemorate Still’s work while collaborating with other Black performers created a sense of comfort for the students involved in the Jacobs School production, according to mezzo-soprano Maisah Outlaw, who played the role of Aunt Lou.

“America is a melting pot, and I love being around lots of various cultures,” Outlaw said. “We don’t only want to get the perspective of what we know, but there is something really cool about being in a group of people that have the same cultural experiences as you. It can be really enriching and nice to have that feeling of comfort.”

Outlaw, a first-generation college student, has an undergraduate degree in journalism and French and never studied music formally before coming to Indiana University. She worked as a Montessori teacher in Minneapolis during the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was killed by a police officer, an event that set off a domino effect of protests as people called for change across the country. That summer, Outlaw said, she began to think about a dream of hers that she had not felt was possible before.

“I always had this passion for music that I never felt like I could pursue, being a first-generation college student,” said Outlaw, who is now pursuing her graduate degree at the Jacobs School. “So many people, both people of color as well as people without means in general, look at opera as an inaccessible world. I had never sung opera before, but I knew I had the voice, so I doubled up on voice coaches and applied to some grad programs. If I decide to do something, I really do it.”

When she was accepted to the Jacobs School, her dreams to pursue music were finally within reach. Outlaw said she was drawn to IU by the number of opportunities to perform and gain stage experience.

“Part of my artist’s mission, which I’m still finalizing, is to increase the accessibility of opera,” Outlaw said. “Representation is a part of that. If it feels accessible, people will feel empowered to start a career in the arts.”

Actresses Chase Sanders and Maisah Outlaw pose backstage.
Chase Sanders and Maisah Outlaw backstage during the performance of “Highway 1, USA.”Photo courtesy of Chase Sanders

Outlaw said “Highway 1, USA” was a fitting opera for her first stage role at Jacobs because it feels accessible and relatable. Still wrote the opera about Black American characters. It is sung in English, and the characters deal with real-world issues of family, love and marriage.

Love was an important theme in Still’s life. In 1939, he went to great lengths to marry his second wife, pianist Verna Arvey. She was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Since interracial marriages were still illegal in California, the couple traveled across the border to Tijuana to marry. They later collaborated on “Highway 1, USA,” with Still creating the composition and Arvey the libretto. At the story’s center is the strong, loving bond between the main characters, Bob and Mary.

Baritone Marvin Wayne Allen played the role of Bob. Allen grew up in a musical family. His first love was pop and R&B, and he became interested in singing classical music while working with a vocal coach in high school. He eventually studied in Austria for a summer, where he attended the Salzburg Festival and saw several inspiring opera performances. Now a graduate student at Jacobs, Allen said this production, coupled with the support he feels from his school, has helped him grow as an artist.

“I’m really happy with my choice to come to IU,” said Allen, who is pursuing his master’s in music: voice and opera. “My teacher that I study with is a Black man, which I find to be very validating. I feel very seen by him, and I feel like that’s something that IU gave me.

“Pieces by Black composers typically aren’t in the canon of classics that are performed over and over again. I think it’s important to normalize the fact that there are Black composers, not just now but also from many years ago, whose works deserve to be showcased in the same way that we showcase the Mozarts and the Beethovens. That’s one of the reasons why I find a lot of personal fulfillment in doing an opera by William Grant Still.”

Black composers have been historically marginalized in America’s major opera houses. Since 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York City, only one opera from a Black composer had been staged. But after that oversight garnered attention during the summer of 2020, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by composer Terence Blanchard kicked off the 2021-22 opera season. Based on New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s memoir, the opera sold out.

The world of opera has also been criticized for its lack of Black directors, stage managers and other upper-level roles. “Porgy and Bess,” an opera composed by Gershwin, was recently staged at the Met with a nearly all-Black cast. However, the director and conductor were white.

In their search for someone to direct “Highway 1, USA,” Jacobs reached out to Kimille Howard. Originally from Carmel, Indiana, Howard has forged a successful career as a director, writer and filmmaker. In addition to being assistant stage director at the Met, she is the artistic director for the Lucille Lortel Theatre’s New York City Public High School Playwriting Fellowship and a co-founder of the Black Classical Music Archive. She said she understands firsthand the importance of representation on stage and off.

An actor kneels to kiss the hand of an actress during a performance on stage
Chase Sanders and Jeremiah Sanders perform the roles of Mary and Bob for “Highway 1, USA.”Photo by Sarah Slover, Jacobs School of Music

“If kids see people that look like them making art, performing opera, perhaps that will spark an interest in them to pursue that career,” Howard said. “There is a lack of diversity in a lot of opera programs. Many schools are not able to do ‘Porgy and Bess’ or many of William Grant Still’s operas, like ‘Troubled Island,’ or ‘Voodoo,’ which is an excellent Harry Lawrence Freeman opera. That problem is not going to go away if students who apply aren’t diverse.”

Howard said she appreciated that Jacobs chose an opera that focused on a strong, loving Black relationship.

Bob and Mary “get to realize their wedded bliss, untethered,” she said. “I think that’s really refreshing. I feel like the stereotype is that most opera is tragic, and women characters tend to die. Black stories, in particular, don’t show as much joy or uplifting endings with positive Black romantic relationships.

“I didn’t see anything toxic between Bob and Mary. Rarely do we get to see a Black man and a Black woman happily kiss at the end. We crafted that kiss to be like an MGM final movie moment.”

Students in the production said they felt supported by both their director and the Jacobs School faculty. Their hope is that “Highway 1, USA” is just the beginning of more productions that honor Black composers and provide opportunities to tell stories from diverse perspectives.

Chase Sanders, a soprano studying opera at Jacobs, played the role of Mary. Sanders, who said she was extremely shy growing up, saw her confidence grow as she was cast in lead roles in her high school musicals. She found the inspiration to pursue opera after watching a YouTube video.

“My choir director slowly introduced me to certain opera singers,” Sanders said. “The first person he actually told me to look up was Kathleen Battle, and she is a Black opera singer. I’m grateful for that experience.”

She said her journey as a singer has grown since arriving at IU, and she appreciates the Jacobs School’s efforts to amplify Black stories.

“We all have different life experiences, and I think it’s really important to learn about them,” Sanders said. “The support system we have at Jacobs is just phenomenal.

“I appreciate Jacobs so much for choosing this opera. My hope is for all the seasons to come, that they’ll continue to showcase underrepresented composers. I’m so proud and so honored and grateful for this opportunity to showcase the beautiful music of William Grant Still.”

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