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Preview: Cedar Rapids Opera Juneteenth Concert Program

CROpera’s free Juneteenth concerts at 7 p.m. on June 18 at Iowa City’s Riverside Festival Stage and on June 19 at the Waterloo RiverLoop Amphitheatre are all about the music!

The Cedar Rapids Opera’s Juneteenth concerts open with an aria from one of Ms. Morrison’s favorite American composers, Samuel Barber. Ms. Morrison will present ‘Give me my robe’ from Act III of Barber’s opera based on Shakespeare’s play and text “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Mark Anthony has just died in Cleopatra’s arms, and instead of conceding to Caesar, Cleopatra chooses to die by her own hand with honor, wearing her own robe and crown, and by placing an asp on her chest. Cleopatra was one of Leontyne Price’s signature operatic roles. Mr. Outlaw follows with ‘Three Songs for Baritone’ by Black American composer, Robert Owens.

The powerful and poignant first movement is called “The Lynching.” Dying yet fighting back against the enemy is the theme of the middle movement entitled “If we must die.” The last song written in memory of Black American author and activist, George Jackson, is named “To the white friends.” Owens’ based all three movements on the text of the great Jamaican writer and poet, Claude McCay. Ms. Morrison returns to the stage to present Fauré’s dreamy “Au bord de l’eau, (translated to “By the Water”’) Op. 8 No 1.” Fauré imitates Nobel Prize winner Sully Prudhomme’s poetry, by capturing his two enraptured lovers, as they sit along the riverbank watching the peaceful rolling water, accompanied by transitory clouds and the dreamlike-time-standing-still-moments created only by nature.

Morrison then pairs Fauré with the ebullient ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Wooden Horses), the fourth piece taken from Debussy’s song cycle named “Ariettes oublièes,” (Forgotten Songs) featuring the poetry of Paul Verlaine. The work extols the lighthearted, carefree, and youthful delight of a carousel ride.

The first half of the CROpera’s Juneteenth concert closes with Morrison and Outlaw performing Act II’s heartbreaking turning-point-duet “Pura siccome un angelo” (Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter) from Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Morrison will transform into Verdi’s Violetta, the beautiful courtesan who is in love with the young and handsome nobleman, Alfredo Germont. Outlaw will assume the role of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. While Alfredo is away in Paris, securing funds for their living needs, Giorgio has come to see Violetta, insisting that she leave his son. Giorgio claims that due to societal mores, Alfredo’s love affair with a courtesan has no real potential and it will destroy the hopes of his daughter to marry well and maintain her status. In a final selfless, and touching decision, Violetta concedes to Giorgio and agrees to leave Alfredo and never return.

Final Segment

The second half of the Cedar Rapids Opera’s Juneteenth concert starts with Mr. Outlaw performing what has been dubbed, “the perfect baritone aria.” Outlaw opens with ‘Pierrots Tanzlied,’ from Act II of Erich Korngold’s German opera “Die Tote Stadt” (The Dead City). The opera’s plot revolves around Paul, who has transformed a room in his home into a memorial shrine for his late wife, Maria. He calls the room a “temple of memories.” Through a friend, Paul meets an opera dancer, who resembles his wife. Paul sings ‘Pierrots Tanzlied,’ a longing song reflecting on the past and a song of love and loss. Paul imagines himself as a sad clown as he fantasizes between elation and melancholy, juxtaposed with make-believe and exhilaration.

Ms. Morrison returns to the stage, to perform the music of Black American composer, pianist and professor, H. Leslie Adams. Morrison presents Adams’ ‘For you there is no song’ from “Five Millay Songs” set on texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Critics and the American Composers Alliance alike have said of H. Leslie Adams’ music: “They find no other composer writing like Adams in the world. They find it simple yet complex, fun yet serious, spiritual yet nonreligious. Above all, his music touches the heart and soul in a person manner.”

Morrison continues by combining next Adams’ song ‘Joy’ from “Genius Child” by the prolific American composer Ricky Ian Gordon. Gordon has been compared to the best, by the best: “If the music of Ricky Ian Gordon had to be defined by a single quality, it would be the bursting effervescence infusing songs that blithely blur the lines between art song and the high–end Broadway music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It’s caviar for a world gorging on pizza!” (The New York Times) Soprano Harolyn Blackwell commissioned Ricky Ian Gordon in 1995 to compose “Genius Child: A Cycle of 10 Songs,” setting the poetry of Langston Hughes for voice and piano. ‘Joy’ is the last song in the cycle.

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong!”
Frederick Douglass quote taken from the American Composers Alliance

Mr. Outlaw will present next the impressive ‘Fourth of July Speech’ from the opera “Frederick Douglass” composed by a student of Nadia Boulanger, and one of the co-founders of the Society of Black Composers, the American composer Dorothy Rudd Moore. Rudd Moore received a commission from Opera Ebony in 1985 to compose an opera paying tribute to the life of the inimitable Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a great Black American statesman, women’s suffragist, orator, author, minister, reformer, former escaped slave, and abolitionist.

Ms. Morrison follows with “Watch and Pray,” a traditional spiritual set by American composer, pianist, and educator Undine Smith Moore. Smith Moore, the granddaughter of slaves and who experienced the Jim Crow era first-hand was known during her lifetime as the “Dean of Black Women Composers” and an active participant of the Civil Rights Movement.

To conclude the CROpera’s Juneteenth concerts, Ms. Morrison and Mr. Outlaw will close the program with George Gershwin’s famous ‘I Loves You Porgy’ from Act II, Scene 3 of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.” Bess has returned to Catfish Row from Kittiwah Island. She is very ill with a fever and Porgy takes her in. One of the Catfish Row women prays for Bess’s recovery and Bess improves. Porgy tells Bess she may leave if she wishes. Bess confesses to Porgy that she is afraid of the tough dockworker, Crown. Porgy says that he will protect her, and Bess admits to Porgy that she loves him in the legendary duet, ‘I Loves You Porgy.’

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Jacqueline Halbloom is a Sr. Music Producer and Classical Music Host