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The Sunday Opera: "Sanctuary Road" and "Troubled Island" for Black History Month

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This week’s Sunday Opera (2/28 3:00 p.m.) is celebrating Black History Month with a choral work based on stories gathered during the years of the Underground Railroad and the first opera by an African-American composer to be performed by a major American opera house.   We’ll begin with an encore presentation of Paul Moravec’s “Sanctuary Road” which is a setting of some of the personal stories gathered by Philadelphia Abolitionist William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, who not only helped hundreds of people achieve their dreams of freedom, he also collected their stories through interviews.   The main piece of the afternoon is the opera “Troubled Island” by William Grant Still (no relation to William Still above) that was presented by the New York City Opera on March 31, 1949 making it the first opera by an African American composer to be presented at a major American opera house.  “Sanctuary Road” is a piece for soloists and chorus with a libretto by Mark Campbell. The soloists include 

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Paul Moravec & Mark Campbell

 Laquita Mitchell, Raehann Bryce Davis, Joshua Blue, Malcom J. Merriweather, and Dashon Burton.  They’re joined by the Oratoria Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra with Kent Tritle conducting.  This recording has been nominated for the Best Choral Performance Grammy Award being presented in March.   You can access the libretto by Mark Campbell by clicking here

William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island” centers around the slave revolt in Haiti and the rise and fall of Jean-Jacque Dessaline.  The opening night was met with over twenty curtain calls by the delighted audience, but the critical reception was extremely negative because the critics had gathered before the opera and decided that they weren’t going to promote this opera by a Black composer.  There is only one recorded performance of this work as far as we know, and that seems to have been made through the sound system of The City Center during the world premiere performance.  Even though the sound quality is not stellar, this is such a historically important work and performance that it merits airing.  

After the opera, we’ll hear another of William Grant Still’s firsts, and that’s his Symphony No. 1 in A flat major which was the first symphony written by an African American composer to be performed by a major symphony orchestra.   

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.