Lost Harlem Renaissance Opera Soars

This past weekend’s concert-presentation revival of “Voodoo” – a 1914 opera by Harlem Renaissance composer Harry Lawrence Freeman – clearly fell into the glorious latter category. Known in his own time as “the colored Wagner” (given his declared love of the German opera heavyweight), this colleague of Scott Joplin was also steeped in American melody. He wrote more than 20 operas, in addition to composing some pop tunes. While no public recordings of his operas survive, one did play at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Not heard for nearly 90 years, “Voodoo”’s blend of late-Romantic orchestration and American folk textures – including spirituals, period pop-dances and early-jazz bounce – sounded less like a “naïve melange” (as the New York Times put it in 1928) and more like an original, often ingenious synthesis. And though “Voodoo” can’t claim the narrative thrust of Joplin’s (likewise long-unheard) operatic opus “Treemonisha,” this piece features some more audacious experimental textures.

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